Seeing the Federal Light

Chris Christie isn’t the first conservative governor to have a hurricane conversion.

Tangled debris floating around fence with a sign reading HURRICANE in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy.

Tangled debris float around a fence in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy

Photo by Lynn Pelham/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has sent his party into a tailspin by embracing the federal help his state so desperately needs in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is struggling to clarify his position on federal funding for Federal Emergency Management Agency. The issue both governors face—trying to square an ideological dislike for federal power with the need for major disaster relief, right here and now—isn’t a new problem for American politicians. Governors before Christie have had hurricane-induced conversions in which they see the light of federal assistance, and the lesson is that Christie likely has done his constituents, and himself, a great service.

In September 1965, Hurricane Betsy devastated the Gulf Coast. The storm killed over 70 people in several states and was the first hurricane to cause over $1 billion worth of damage, earning the storm the nickname “Billion-Dollar Betsy.” All that destruction presented Southern politicians with a problem: Their constituents needed aid on the scale only the federal government could provide, but these politicians had spent years railing against that same federal government in the name of “states’ rights.”

States’ rights has a long and sometimes ignoble heritage in American politics, with roots in the defense of slavery and segregation. Particularly after the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation order in Brown v. Board of Education, Southern Democrats like Louisiana Gov. John McKeithen had refined a political rhetoric that portrayed the federal government as a distant enemy from whom they protected their constituents. McKeithen told Congress in 1965, for instance, that “when civil rights legislation passed … we seriously considered and calculated what our chances would be,” seceding once again from the Union. All that stopped him, he claimed, was that “someone mentioned that the Union now had atomic weapons, and we couldn’t possibly contain them, so we might as well be a part of this great nation of ours.”

The sheer scale of Hurricane Betsy’s destruction, though, forced a re-evaluation. “The disaster and human misery that all of us saw,” McKeithen said, “must make us answer the question Cain asked of Abel, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the answer must be, ‘Yes,’ and the time is now.”

McKeithen looked to the scripture and foresaw the end of days for a certain strain of Southern resistance to the federal government. In September 1965, a congressional subcommittee met in New Orleans to investigate Hurricane Betsy and the government’s response. Most of the Louisiana delegation was there to testify—and to emphasize their newfound gratitude for the American federal government.

McKeithen opened his testimony by expressing how his state was “greatly appreciative of the spontaneous and enthusiastic manner in which the federal government has come in here to help us.” Gauging the scope of the damage that had befallen Louisiana, McKeithen recognized that “the only people we can look to for the tremendous amount of money” and work required to rebuild from this storm and defend against another, “of course, are the people, the federal government in Washington, D.C.” He added, “Americanism in our state has … been reawakened and revitalized, because … when we got in trouble … no suggestion was made, ‘Well, you people have been talking down there about states’ rights. You can take care of your own problems.’ ”

To be sure, many Southern politicians remained unreconstructed. At the same hearings, for instance, Rep. Edward Hébert—whose district included the Lower 9th Ward, where flooding in 1965 presaged the devastation of Hurricane Katrina—decried any disaster aid that would go directly to residents. He asserted that the federal government was not in the business of helping alleviate a man’s worries about the “empty stomach he has got,” “those little naked children who lost all their clothes,” or “the future of his family.” Hébert told a New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter that that “the main responsibility in time of disaster rested upon the individual, not the federal government.”

McKeithen’s position, however, won the day. Federal disaster relief poured into Louisiana on an unprecedented scale, transforming Southern politics and—alongside Medicare, Medicaid, and President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty—signaling a change in the American social compact. McKeithen’s new stance helped him as well as his state. In 1968, after Louisiana passed a constitutional amendment eliminating term limits, McKeithen became the first Louisiana governor of the 20th century to serve consecutive terms in office.

Watching Hurricane Katrina unfold as governor of Massachusetts in 2005, Mitt Romney said, “It’s frustrating to look at the TV screen and see people suffer and not be able to directly help them.” John McKeithen found a way to see past his outdated ideological commitments and try to help. So today has Chris Christie. Americans suffering from Hurricane Sandy and considering their vote next week for president should ask: What would Romney’s hesitation about the value of federal aid mean for the next state in need?