With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Rebuilding Hurricane-Devastated Areas- Why Not Follow LBJ’s Lead?

Last week, U.S. representatives and senators from Louisiana introduced the “Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief and Economic Recovery Act” into Congress. The total cost of the bill popped quite a few eyes- $250 billion. The bill (S. 1765) runs over 400 pages and seeks funds for just about everything one could imagine. Some of the objects of funding seems perfectly reasonable--who, for example, would object to federal funds being used to repair damaged veterans’ medical facilities?

Others, though, have drawn hoots. S. 1765 would have the American public pony up $150 million in fisheries disaster assistance, $25 million for a sugar cane research laboratory, $35 million for seafood marketing, and so forth. There also is the matter of the brobdingnagian magnitude of the demands for funds. As the Washington Post noted, $250 billion amounts to $50,000 to every person in the entire state (and this doesn’t include the $62.3 billion already appropriated for disaster relief).

But the size of S. 1765 should not divert our attention from an even bigger issue- the challenge of creating coherent policy to aid hurricane-stricken areas with reconstruction. At last count, there were over 100 disaster response and recovery bills introduced into Congress offering billions of dollars in the form of tax cuts, regulation waivers, grants, loans, and more. How is Congress supposed to reconcile all these ideas into a coherent policy?

Nobody knows. Meanwhile, thousands of citizens remain refugees, their futures hinging on the federal government’s ability to craft a long-term economic recovery plan to get New Orleans, Beaumont, and other areas up and functioning.

This legislative free-for-all might have been avoided had President George W. Bush chosen to take the lead in formulating disaster recovery policies for the affected areas. Instead, he seems to be devoting his energies to following FEMA’s and other agencies’ efforts to clean up the damage.

Forty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson showed how the federal government could both respond rapidly and rationally to a major natural disaster and, critically, draw up sensible legislation based on expert analyses to get the affected area back on its feet.

On March 27, 1964, Good Friday, at 5:36 PM, a huge earthquake rocked Alaska. The 8.6 magnitude quake rocked perhaps 50,000 square miles, including Anchorage, Kodiak, Valdez, and more. Roads were rent to pieces, buildings collapsed, fishing boats heaved hundreds of feet onto land; whole shorelines slipped under water. 115 persons were killed and $750 million ($4.7 billion in today’s dollars) in damage was done.

Within a few hours, Governor William A. Egan of Alaska and the U.S. military authorities stationed in Alaska had gotten in contact with one another and launched what would become called “Operation Helping Hand.” (For a case in contrast, see the lengthy Salon.com article on Louisiana officials troubles in responding.) Military and civilians worked together to deliver water to affected areas, patching together telephone service, and preparing areas where civilians could get a meal and take refuge.

By the next day, President Johnson had declared a national disaster and dispatched members of the Office of Emergency Planning (OEP) to Alaska to get relief efforts rolling. OEP got in immediate contact with both local officials and federal agencies and began coordinating disaster response.

Johnson might have stopped here at the point of providing disaster relief. With civil rights issues brewing and a war in Vietnam going less than well, and a campaign to run against Barry Goldwater, the president was plenty busy. Instead, Johnson put his mind to formulating a plan to produce legislation that would provide rational plans for reconstructing the damaged areas. On April 2, he established through executive order the Federal Reconstruction and Development Planning Commission for Alaska (FRDPCA).

It was an ingenious entity. FRDPCA was composed of members of agencies help would be needed (e.g., Defense, Interior, Small Business Administration, etc.), the director of OEP, and, critically, New Mexico Senator Clinton P. Anderson. While the Atomic Energy Commission’s Dwight A. Ink was the executive director of FRDPCA, Anderson was its de facto head. LBJ appointed Anderson because he knew that Anderson was competent at executive work and he could help LBJ get reconstruction legislation through Congress.

FRDPCA set to work immediately. It recruited competent staff from Senator Anderson’s office and experts from agencies represented on FRDPCA. It created task forces to handle assorted issues areas involved in reconstruction (e.g., economic stabilization, housing, etc.) also composed of top personnel from FRDPCA agencies who possessed deep knowledge of the machinery of government. Members were dispatched to Alaska where they worked with other officials to draw up damage assessments and plans for repairing the damage and getting Alaska back on its feet. Johnson, in the meantime, got Congress to pass emergency appropriations to help fund the clean-up in Alaska.

FRDCPA took what it learned on the ground in Alaska (it held numerous forums with both local officials and the public) and drew up sensible legislation to enact policy that would promote the long-term recovery of Alaska. On May 27, just two months after the earthquake, LBJ submitted reconstruction legislation to Congress. By mid-August, Congress had enacted the bill into law and Alaska was on the road to full recovery. In October of 1964, its mission fulfilled, the Federal Reconstruction and Development Planning Commission for Alaska was abolished by LBJ.

Mr. Bush may have been handed a political gift by Hurricane Rita. Since this second cyclone struck some of the same areas as Katrina, Mr. Bush might now leap into the legislative fray and present a unified plan for hurricane recovery. Should he do so, he might find it helpful to follow the lead of that other president from Texas.