Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco didn’t want Hurricane Katrina to define her legacy, but it was, as newspaper people say, the first line of her obituary. That’s what happens when politicians and entire regions’ best-laid plans are overtaken by larger forces.
It’s what those leaders and the people they serve do after disaster strikes that tells us who they are.
Blanco’s death earlier this month has prompted many remembrances of her stewardship during and after the monster storm and subsequent levee breaks — her mistakes, of course, but mostly her toughness, resolve and commitment to setting Louisiana on a better course.
Fourteen years after Katrina hit near Buras and exposed deep natural and man-made vulnerabilities, it’s worth pausing to remember that, while Blanco’s position was unique, her response to the tragedy wasn’t.
As awful as that period was, it was also a time when ordinary heroes rose to the occasion. The list is way too long to fully recount here, but they include the people who rushed into the danger with boats; those who welcomed evacuees to Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and points beyond despite strains on their own infrastructure and resources; and the many who tirelessly mucked out houses, offered hot meals, attended meetings and figured out how, in stops and starts, to put the pieces back together again. It’s been heartening to see those instincts kick in again during subsequent disasters, whether close to home or far away.
We learned a lot from the ordeal, and those lessons have informed responses to subsequent extreme weather events. It was Katrina that taught emergency responders that they needed to take family pets into account because many people wouldn’t leave without them. It was Katrina that highlighted the importance of pre-staging resources ahead of a forecast storm. And it was Katrina that at least started the process of improving federal rules governing things such as reimbursements for destroyed public facilities.
It was also Katrina that showed local officials not to take no for answer, particularly when the “no” is nonsensical. One example is the long fight to change duplication of benefits rules that kept people affected by the 2016 floods in and around Baton Rouge from getting their fair share of federal aid.
All these years later, Aug. 29 can now pass without much notice. Around the New Orleans area, the visible scars are fewer than they once were, even if the absence of friends and family members who never made it back still stings.
But as Blanco’s death reminds us, the past is never really past. In this age of superstorms, the lessons of 2005 remain as relevant as ever.