In the runup to the 10th anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco continued to peddle a conspiracy theory about the abysmally inadequate federal response to the levee failures in New Orleans. Why should we care?
She tells a tale of a Republican White House that protected former President George W. Bush by shifting to her, a Democrat governor, the blame that his administration deserved for missteps in handling the tragedy. Also, she accuses Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was then in Congress, and U.S. Sen. David Vitter of validating Republican congressional efforts to limit recovery funds. Many Republicans at the time expressed concerns about how efficiently recovery money would be used.
Blanco alleges a politicized response by GOP figures who prevented her from successfully addressing the crisis and then faulted her for poor results. In other words, without some dastardly Republicans interfering, her actions before and after Katrina hit would have been sufficient to diminish harm.
Wrong. Some unmentioned embarrassing truths undermine her entire thesis. They begin with the fact that the emergency management plan put together by the Blanco administration — in the words of then-emergency management expert Craig Fugate, who later headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency — was not “well thought-out,” and when the time came, the state followed it indifferently.
Prior to the storm’s landfall, she declared a disaster and mobilized the state’s National Guard, but failed to follow federal law in specifying federal troops to assist, finally blurting out to Bush a need for “everything you’ve got.” Her follow-up mailed request never made it; federal officials had to figure out its contents from a website. When the White House, in order to adhere to federal law, wanted to expedite matters by proposing unified troop commands under federal control, she dithered for two days then rejected this. These actions, not indifference or politicized intransigence, caused harmful delays.
The real tragedy is that Blanco should have known better how to deal with all of this. Only 13 months before, FEMA’s Hurricane Pam exercise simulated a scenario similar to what became reality, and the Blanco administration participated in that drill. Concluding reports pointed out response flaws still present in the official state plan a year later. Then, a month afterward, the real-life threat of Hurricane Ivan, which veered to strike Alabama, provided another opportunity for Blanco to dress-rehearse for the worst.
As things turned out, those Republican fears about how efficiently recovery aid would be used were not entirely unfounded. Blanco shepherded into existence the Road Home program, the bureaucratic labyrinth plagued early on with mismanagement and financial problems that simultaneously lost hundreds of millions of dollars through fraud while frustrating honest citizens trying to rebuild and/or elevate their residences. The program’s performance improved after her term, but thousands still wait for funds or reimbursements, while thousands of others took the money and ran. Citizens deserved better on her watch.
After the storm, Blanco appeared to act to protect her own image with re-election in mind. Her testimony to Congress late in 2005 about the storm response featured redacted and incomplete documentation and obscurant, if not inaccurate, answers when the questions got tough.
The disaster’s scale overwhelmed many in all levels of government. But it’s unbecoming when a political figure evades responsibility for her mistakes by deflecting blame onto others. That’s why we should care about the accuracy of her narrative. If we allow officeholders past and present to distract us from their failures to perform adequately, we deserve the inferior governance their kind always brings us.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political of political science at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Politics. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics (http://www.between-lines.com) and, when the Louisiana Legislature is in session, another about current legislation issues (http://www.laleglog.com). He may be reached through Twitter, @jeffsadow. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.