In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, then-Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco made a somewhat unpopular decision.
Well aware of the families scattered across New Orleans, south Louisiana and even other states, Blanco found herself driving around the city day after day, forced to look upon one of the biggest symbols of disrepair in the city.
The Superdome — once a place that housed thousands of screaming, football-crazed fans on Sundays in the fall — had become a shadow of its former self, with fierce winds tearing off much of the roof and standing water growing mold within.
So Blanco set out to rebuild that Saints family first, trusting blood families would soon fall into line. Now more than a decade later, her political career long passed and her health failing, the former governor joined one of the most select families in New Orleans Saints lore — the organization’s Hall of Fame.
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“This is a highlight of my life,” she said Wednesday at the team’s practice facility, where members of the Hall of Fame committee announced this year’s class. “(My family) has always been Saints fans, of course, through the years of total frustration and years of total elation. But this is extraordinary, and I’m proud of being with these guys.”
Those “guys” sitting to Blanco’s left Wednesday represented three of the premier cornerstones of a team that made a stark turnaround from a 3-13 record in 2005 while playing home games in San Antonio due to the storm’s damage, to a team in 2006 that caught the country by storm and finished 10-6 with an NFC South title and a trip to the conference championship game.
Two rookies from that 2006 team, running back Reggie Bush and wideout Marques Colston, were announced as Hall of Fame inductees Wednesday, while Blanco was given the Joe Gemelli “Fleur de Lis” award for her contributions to the organization.
One was a superstar before he ever put on a Saints' uniform.
And to then-rookies, those contributions didn’t go unnoticed, either then or now.
“Without Ms. Blanco taking initiative and making sure we had our stadium redone and put back together, we wouldn’t have been able to go in and do the work we did that year,” Bush said. “We all have a purpose, and Ms. Blanco was a huge piece of that, so I’m happy to be going into the Hall of Fame with her.”
Six weeks after Katrina devastated the city, Doug Thornton, who both then and now oversees the Superdome for SMG, a private management company, visited the then-governor, knowing the future of the stadium and the football team’s future in New Orleans largely rested in Blanco’s hands.
The team wouldn’t be able to return without a complete overhaul of the Superdome, but the governor’s staff told her she’d undoubtedly take a political hit from pushing forward the plan while most New Orleans residents were displaced and in need of aid.
But she could see the long-term implications that such a project could spark. The personal goals of landing a second term as governor paled in comparison to what Blanco knew bringing the Saints back into town could do for a city in need of a sign of hope.
“Every time I looked at the Superdome and the roof, it was a symbol of despair, and I thought ‘If we drive around every single day, looking at the symbol of despair, we’re all in despair’,” she remembers thinking in 2005. “I knew we had to change that image and make it a beacon. … I knew the value was greater than just a building. This city and region and Saints fans everywhere really needed to have something to rally around.
“That building became a symbol of victory. People working on small properties looked at it and said ‘If they can do that with a big property, then we can do our small property.’ ”
Blanco was honored in a ceremony before the Saints’ Jan. 13 playoff victory against the Eagles, where a plaque at the entrance of Gate A was placed in her name, commemorating her role in the reopening of the stadium on Sept. 25, 2006.
But it’s a small miracle she was able to celebrate Wednesday’s announcement.
In 2011, she was diagnosed and treated for a rare eye cancer, but it returned and spread to her liver in 2017. After undergoing several chemotherapy sessions, she’s no longer seeking treatment for the disease and is confined to a motorized scooter.
In April, one of her daughters, Pilar Eble, wrote on Facebook that the family had “asked for hospice’s assistance, as the cancer is progressing rapidly.”
Still, she lives at her home in Lafayette, and she was zoomed into Wednesday’s ceremony with a vibrant enthusiasm, a fleur de lis hanging from her necklace. She even made jokes of social media’s first attempt at announcing her premature demise two weeks ago and could go on for minutes on end reminiscing about her efforts to revitalize the city more than a decade ago.
With several children and grandchildren watching in the crowd Wednesday, Blanco went ahead and accepted the hardware for her award on Wednesday — which normally takes place at the official induction ceremony to be held Oct. 25. Organizers wanted to make sure she had the chance to be justly honored for her contributions, but fighting is in her nature.
“I do have a lot of challenges ahead of me,” she said, “but I’m going to plan to be here in October.”