In a quiet, leafy neighborhood in the heart of Lafayette, bicycles and skateboards are parked outside the front door of a house where Kathleen Blanco — grandmother, mother, wife and former governor of Louisiana — answers her front door with a gentle smile. Her blue-green eyes are clear, as 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 life after politics. "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 tenure as governor, Blanco conducted trade missions to Cuba and Asia, poured resources into public education and higher education and left a $1 billion surplus to a successor who squandered it and wrecked much of her good work with Louisiana's university system.
But Blanco's term as governor forever will be linked to the late summer and early fall of 2005, to two of the most powerful hurricanes ever to strike Louisiana, to the more than 1,500 dead across Louisiana, and to the agonizing and often infuriating months and years of recovery marred by American politics at its worst.
Yet Blanco, now 72, has no regrets.
"I did everything that I knew I could do," she says. "This was of course a joke, but [reporters] 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 totaled $13 billion, but much of it she had to pry from a Republican-controlled Congress that had little interest in helping a Democratic governor.
The days following Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, through Hurricane Rita, which raked southwestern Louisiana and razed thousands of homes and camps four weeks later, were the longest and most agonizing of Blanco's life.
"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 [U.S. Sen.] David Vitter and [then-U.S. Rep.] 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."
Vitter and Jindal were 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 (FEMA) and the White House proved ineffectual in addressing the disaster.
"Of course when you have [presidential adviser] 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," Blanco says. "But the people of the United States saw that; they understood what was going on.
"I'll just tell you that the lie that Karl Rove actually put out was very undermining to my credibility," Blanco adds. "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," she says. "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 made landfall that the feds would have hundreds of tour buses to evacuate New Orleans. They didn't. Instead, the evacuation began with Louisiana school buses and continued with civilians bringing in aluminum bass boats to rescue people from their rooftops. It was chaos. Rove and his minions 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," Blanco 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 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, D.C., 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 eventually was 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 Democrats, 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!" Blanco chuckles. "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 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' flood-protection system not failed in New Orleans, Katrina would have been a "normal" hurricane in the Crescent City.
"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," Blanco says. "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 re-election, her thinking went, they would be less resistant to her initiatives because she wasn't padding her resume for the fall election.
"It was to defuse their anxiety of believing that my motivations were political," Blanco says.
As difficult as the second half of her term in office was, one gets the feeling Louisiana's first woman governor wouldn't have it any other way.
"None of us really knows what our destiny is in this life," she says. "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.
"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."
— Walter Pierce is managing editor of The Independent in Lafayette.