Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco suffered plenty of political bruises in the days, weeks and months after Katrina, but she remains defiant that she did right by her state.
In a quiet, leafy neighborhood in the heart of Lafayette, bicycles and skateboards of grandchildren parked outside and a pile of kids’ shoes piled nearby, Kathleen Blanco — grandmother, mother, wife and former governor of Louisiana — answers her front door with a gentile smile. Her blue-green eyes are clear, and so is her conscience.
“I’ve been having a great life — traveling, writing a memoir, which is not quite complete but I have volumes done,” she says of her post-Fourth Floor life. “I have some typical days and some you just fly and go with it — be flexible and free, and lots of surprises happen when you can do that.”
During her time as governor, 2004- 2008, Blanco conducted trade missions to Cuba and Asia, poured resources into public education and higher-ed and left a $1 billion budget surplus to a successor who squandered it and wrecked much of her good work with Louisiana’s university system.
But Kathleen Blanco’s term as governor will forever be linked to one month in the late summer-early fall of 2005 and two of the most powerful hurricanes to ever strike Louisiana; to the more than 1,000 dead in a flooded New Orleans, mostly by drowning; and to the agonizing and often infuriating months and years of recovery marred by American politics at its very worst.
Yet Blanco has no regrets. Not now. “I did everything that I knew I could do,” she recalls. “This was of course a joke, but Mike Hasten and John Hill from Gannett visited me just as I was about to leave office, and they asked me [if I would have done anything differently], and it was a kind of tongue-in-cheek answer, but I said half-seriously, ‘If I had known how political this White House was going to be, I might have considered becoming a Republican just to lower the temperature so that I could get all that money up front.’” That money totalled $13 billion dollars, but much of it she had to pry from a Republican-controlled Congress that had little interest in helping a Democratic governor.
The days leading up to Katrina, which made landfall on Aug. 29, through Rita, which raked Southwestern Louisiana and razed thousands of homes and camps on Sept. 25, were the longest of Blanco’s life. And the politicization of those days just amplified the tedium and fatigue.
“Our work didn’t stop after the first two months — it just continued because we were first of all trying to get money and manage to get it out in a very legal fashion, a protective fashion,” she says. “We had been accused of being so reckless with money that David Vitter and Bobby Jindal said publicly that Louisiana could hardly be trusted with a lot of money. And they were both in Congress at the time. It was very disheartening.”
But Vitter and Jindal were just working from the playbook. From Blanco’s perspective, a coordinated attack was launched in the days after Katrina struck, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the White House proved ineffectual in addressing the disaster.
The architect of that plan, as he was affectionately called by his boss George W. Bush, was Turd Blossom.
“Of course when you have Karl Rove, a political animal, in the White House on the federal payroll looking at everything through a political prism, you’re going to have a political result. But the people of the United States saw that; they understood what was going on,” Blanco says.
“I’ll just tell you that the lie that Karl Rove actually put out was very undermining to my credibility,” adds Blanco, who has obviously ruminated often on how politics shaped the aftermath of Katrina. “He doesn’t admit it now, but it was printed in Time Magazine and The Washington Post that the reason for the delayed federal response — and he put this out a week or a week and half or so after Katrina came in when they were still fighting to restore the president’s credibility — he put out this story that the governor of Louisiana had not signed a disaster declaration until after Katrina made landfall. They printed it and didn’t bother to check our website or just go online.
“Every news media outlet in Louisiana had printed it or stated it on TV, in newspapers, radio, everywhere: I issued it on the Friday night before the hurricane when most people in Louisiana did not know that we were in the cone of influence, and on Saturday the papers all came out with it.
“So Karl Rove was willing to lie to try to discredit me so that the president could look better. It still didn’t work. I think that, and I’ve said this to others and I firmly believe it, it was something as simple as buses running on time that could have saved the president from embarrassment and saved them from attacking me — although maybe they would’ve enjoyed attacking me anyway because disasters have become so political in this country that the people who are directly affected by them become the casualties of this political fighting that begins to happen, and it’s crazy. We always have to point fingers and blame somebody.”
Then-FEMA Director Michael Brown, Blanco recalls, promised her in the hours after Katrina struck that the feds would have hundreds of tour buses to evacuate New Orleans. They didn’t. Instead the evacuation was initiated with Louisiana school buses, and with regular folks bringing in their aluminum bass boats to rescue stray people from their rooftops. It was chaos — bleating babies and hovering helicopters and desperate people turning to looting. And Rove and his minions were focused on blaming Blanco.
“When you have these political people coming in to try to move the politics in the middle of these life-threatening periods — that is evil. I have no respect for them,” the former governor says flatly. “But I will tell you, even with Karl Rove doing what he did trying to protect the president, I never had a minute’s thought that George Bush himself was not trying to help. I think that some forces within the federal government were not coming forward in a timely fashion.”
Those forces included a GOP-controlled Congress. Its first appropriation for federal aid following Katrina was roughly $11 billion. Mississippi, then led by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who had previously served as chairman of the Republican National Committee and had glad-handed and pumped campaign cash into the coffers of just about every GOP pol on Capitol Hill, got $5 billion of that; Louisiana got $6 billion (with a few hundred million thrown at minimally affected Alabama).
Not satisfied with Louisiana’s share, Blanco went to Washington to press the state’s case for more funding.
“[House] Speaker [Dennis] Hastert, who’s been in some trouble of his own lately, he told me that Mississippi had gotten the worst of the damage because in Mississippi the houses were washed away and nothing was left but slabs,” Blanco remembers. “And I said, ‘Speaker Hastert, that happened in Louisiana, too.’ And he said, ‘Well you just flooded, and the houses were standing in the flood.’ And I said, ‘No-no-no-no, we had as many houses as Mississippi did that got washed away in certain areas, but the rest of the houses — have you ever been in a house with flood waters in it? Even 18 inches is miserable.’ But I said, ‘If you got 6 and 8 and 12 feet of water, you would wish that your house got washed away, because now you know what you have to do. But when it’s just flooded and all your furniture and everything is in it and you’ve got to get it out and get the wall materials and muck and everything out, that’s miserable.’” Blanco was eventually able to squeeze another $4 billion out of a recalcitrant Congress. After the Republicans lost the House of Representatives in 2006, she got $3 billion more from the Dems who were then running the legislative branch.
She recalls seeing a Louisiana friend at the Washington Mardi Gras in 2007 and telling her, “I think I died and came back Haley Barbour!” she recounts with a chuckle. “The Democrats couldn’t do enough for us. They were so upset when they were trying to help us but didn’t have the votes. A humanitarian thing like that — it’s just impossible to understand how political [Republicans] made it, just impossible.”
A big part of Blanco’s pitch to the White House and Congress was that had New Orleans’ Corps of Engineers-designed flood-protection system not failed, Katrina would have been a “normal” hurricane. “I told them if the levees hadn’t failed, we’d be back home cleaning up the tree debris, a few houses that got some flooding and we’d be whole. The city of New Orleans would not have flooded. It’s a federal responsibility — it’s not a state responsibility.” By then Blanco had decided she would be a one-term governor. In fact, she says, she decided by the end of 2005 that she wouldn’t seek a second term. She waited until March 2007 to announce it, on the cusp of the spring legislative session, in large part to head off the political tension she anticipated from an increasingly polarized Legislature. If the Republicans in Baton Rouge knew she wasn’t seeking reelection, maybe, her thinking went, they would be less resistant to her initiatives because she wasn’t padding her résumé for the fall election.
“It was to diffuse their anxiety of believing that my motivations were political,” Blanco says.
As hard as the second half of her term in office was, one gets the feeling Blanco wouldn’t have it any other way.
“None of us really knows what our destiny is in this life. We set out creating a life for ourselves. I just want to reiterate that it was probably the greatest honor of my life and truly a unique blessing to be chosen by our people. But I think also that it’s driven by our Creator — our big destinies are driven by God’s plan for each of us,” she says. “When I look at that whole big event and understand that it called on me to give 100 percent of everything I had, I know that this is the greatest honor and the greatest blessing that could have ever happened to me personally, even though it was the hardest thing that I have ever had to do.”