LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — If former President Bill Clinton had been in office in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, the federal government would’ve responded very differently, former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said Wednesday.
Speaking before a packed crowd at Sturgis Hall on the Clinton School of Public Service campus, Blanco used her first speech outside of Louisiana since leaving office last month to criticize the federal government for its posthurricane response and to offer lessons for other communities in the wake of disaster.
She directed her sharpest criticism at the Bush administration.
“Let me be clear. The disaster was so big that the capacity of local and state government was overrun,” she said. “We turned to the federal government, and they could not deliver.” Instead, the Bush administration responded with a “war of words,” Blanco said.
“They were saying, ‘Shame on you, Louisiana, for being who you are, and what you are, and where you are,'” she said.
But one upside to the failed federal response, Americans now more willingly demand answers from the government, Blanco said.
“The politics of fear that have made it so un-American to ask questions ended with Katrina,” she said.
The former governor took the crowd through a timeline of events starting with the massive evacuation effort in the days before the storm and ending with the ongoing recovery, which she estimated will continue for 10 to 15 years.
The aftermath of the storm is a prime example of why communities must have advanced emergency response plans in place, she said.
“In no time, we went from rule of law to a full-blown representation of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” Blanco said. “In our case, it all went wrong … that’s why it is so important to continue to plan.” She outlined a few lessons she hoped other communities could learn.
The most important — to have a means for emergency workers and other first responders to communicate, she said.
“You cannot coordinate if you cannot communicate,” Blanco said. “Communities should invest in a communication system that can survive hell or high water, because that is what we were dealing with.” She also warned that communities must “be prepared to be on your own for the first 72 hours after any kind of disaster.” In her case, Blanco said, she assumed the federal government would immediately send federal troops because she had requested help. But it was days after the levees had been breached that U.S. Army troops responded, she said.
Though she joked about Louisiana State University’s recent loss in football to the University of Arkansas causing a “crisis of massive depression,” Blanco was quick to thank Arkansas for being one of the first states to send National Guard troops after Katrina.
“Thank you, Arkansas. Thank you, [former governor] Mike Huckabee,” she said.
Blanco, the first woman governor of Louisiana, also was the first woman elected to the Louisiana Legislature, the first woman to serve on the state’s Public Service Commission and the first woman to serve as chairman of that commission.
She was elected lieutenant governor in 1995 and governor in 2004.
Blanco weathered criticism for her initial response to the storm. In the years that followed, she saw more criticism with the slow pace of recovery programs, including the Road Home program, which was designed to get federal grants to homeowners trying to rebuild after the storm.
In March 2007, Blanco announced she would not run for reelection. She left office in January.
Carly Benkov, a Clinton School student who spent a year volunteering in New Orleans after Katrina, said Blanco is a testament to the spirit of Louisiana.“Beginning with the preparations needed in the days leading up to the storm, though the flooding and the chaos … and finally the process of rebuilding, Gov. Blanco persevered,” Benkov said in her introduction of the speaker. “She raised her voice for her state, even when it felt like the nation was not listening.”