Interview Kathleen Blanco
Blanco was governor of Louisiana from 2004 until 2008. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 10, 2010.
[When did violence start breaking out?]
Tuesday, [Aug. 30, 2005,] we started getting all kinds of reports, and I noticed when I did see television they were reporting fires, and they were reporting all kinds of things going on. Then they started reporting the looting on Tuesday evening and maybe Wednesday. You get kind of lost in time because you're living through this.
I decided on Tuesday night that on Wednesday morning one of the things I would do is call the president and ask specifically for military assistance. ... I needed boots on the ground, but I also needed equipment.
The National Guard normally does the local work, ... but we were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps as much as 60 or 65 percent of our equipment -- our trucks and all kinds of equipment -- were off in the war zone and had not been replaced. …
So I was assessing all of those needs, and I decided that we needed more equipment and that perhaps the Department of Defense forces could help us provide some of that.
... Was there also a sense that you needed to provide military arms?
I thought that if we had more military presence that it would also help with what seemed to be the atmosphere -- or [what] was being depicted as the atmosphere -- of lawlessness. And I thought that that would be important.
But in the meantime, I wasn't just waiting for the federal government. I was building up National Guard forces by asking first our neighboring states and nearby states to send additional National Guard members in. ...
It's an odd thing that for the lawlessness part of it, you cannot use the Department of Defense forces. They have no legal authority to exercise police authority. The National Guard does. ... If you federalize the National Guard, which became one of the questions in point on Wednesday when I asked the president to send additional assistance, you lose the National Guard's ability to do police work, to take on police powers. You have to have some of both.
[During] that first conversation, you were not saying, "I want to federalize." You just wanted these people on the ground as quick as possible.
That's right. We needed the search-and-rescue teams that were put together later on and to continue the process. We had hoped to get additional forces in to help us with the evacuation. That's a very appropriate mission for the Department of Defense forces. That's the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force.
We also needed the Air Force to come in and bring helicopters. It would have been nice to get one of the Navy ships, the hospital ship called the Comfort. It did go to Mississippi; it never came to Louisiana. But we had so many more people here, it would have made a lot of sense to bring a hospital ship in. ...
Right after I asked the president to help me build up force, I said, "We need about 40,000 troops on the ground." And he said, "Does it matter to you what the proportion of National Guard versus Department of Defense force is?" And I said, "No, sir." I said, "We will continue building on the National Guard if you will supplement us with the DoD forces." So I thought we had an agreement.
As a matter of fact, that's the day Gen. [Russel] Honoré appeared on the scene, and my adjutant general was very pleased and excited. He called me, and he said: "Governor, the president has answered your request for additional troops. Gen. Honoré is on his way in and will be in this evening, and he will come to visit with you." And he said: "We're going to ask the DoD forces to take charge of the evacuation of the Superdome. That will free up my National Guard soldiers and airmen, and we can do more rescue operations and policing." ...
By Thursday, [Sept. 1], we did not see any troop buildup. ... [Gen. Honoré] did arrive, and I made the request of him to take charge of the evacuation process, and he agreed to do that. But as our meeting was ending, I asked him, "General, how many soldiers did you bring to put toward the mission?" And that's when he put his head down, and he looked up, and he said, "Governor, I'm here with a handful of staffers in an advisory capacity." And my heart dropped, because we needed help. We needed force; we needed the supply of personnel helping with all of this. So the National Guard ended up continuing the plan for the evacuation, and they ended up being the organization that did all the legwork. ...
The other problem that we were having was not having adequate transportation. Initially, 10,000 people have overnighted in the Dome and stayed there during the course of the storm. Then we saw the roof rip off, and people who had been housed very orderly on the floors had to be moved into the stadium seats and into the floors surrounding the stadium. It got to be a very bad situation. ...
... I am interested in your relationship with the National Guard the next day and when you saw them as rescue and as law enforcement. ... Define those two roles.
The National Guard will come into a community and help the local authorities with anything they need help with. They can help to rescue people; they can help to move people out, to evacuate people. They normally had a lot of equipment, a lot of buses and things like that to use to help evacuate people.
I think that our local National Guard could have done that, rescued several hundred or maybe a few thousand people. The mission just became so overwhelming when it became 50,000 to 60,000 people. The dynamics changed dramatically then, and if we had had equipment, optimally we probably could have evacuated after the storm maybe as many as 8,000 people. But we didn't have enough equipment because many of our buses were in Iraq or Afghanistan. Much of our equipment was nonexistent, so we had to call in other Guard members from other states and ask them to bring as much equipment as they could possibly send us.
What's the flip side of their role?
The other side of the role is they can function as law enforcement officers … under the auspices of the local law enforcement leadership. They become a support system for the local law enforcement authorities, and the local law enforcement authorities can give them assignments just as though they are a part of the regular force.
National Guard members then can have the powers of arrest, and they can take charge of a situation in the same way that a police officer would. A lot of members of the Guard are police officers in their daily normal lives, in their citizen lives.
So these guys would know the rules.
The ones who are going to be asked to do policing generally are people who know civilian policing rules, yes.
And so they know all these ideas about rules of engagement.
They do. They are trained for that in most cases.
... Under what local authority are they then in that policing role?
They can operate under either the chief of police or the sheriff who is in charge of law enforcement. In most parishes, the sheriff is in charge of law enforcement. In New Orleans, we had two sheriffs. One was the civil sheriff, and one was the criminal sheriff. So they could operate under the criminal sheriff or the city chief of police in either case.
You kind of turn the keys over to them.
That's correct. They are then working in coordinated effort. Normally -- what did happen later on -- you would put them out in the neighborhoods and try to prevent vandalism of homes and properties and keep the outlying areas relatively safe, and you send the local police in to do the hard policing, because members of the Guard are not always from the area you're asking them to do police work in. They're from all parts of the state, so they don't know the terrain as well, so they have to work with a local officer in tandem. ...
How many came in to New Orleans, do you recall? Orleans Parish.
... The whole Guard was activated, and we have 5,000 or 6,000 members available for activation. ...
... What's driving you to feel the need to assign 5,000 troops to Orleans Parish? What are the things that you're hearing?
There are so many things happening at one time. You've got people in stress; so many of them are doing lifesaving missions. ...
We have pilots who put the front wheel of the helicopter on the edge of the building, and another airman has a foot on the building and a foot in the helicopter, talking directly to the pilot to keep the plane level, and having 30 people jump into the helicopter where the seats have been all removed and everybody's standing as the helicopter moves them away and brings them to a point where they can be evacuated. So you've got Guard members doing these risky helicopter [maneuvers].
... What's motivating you to want to call in the law enforcement?
... What happened is the media started drumming up the fears that lawlessness is prevailing, and it started to hamper our rescue mission. Then I began to see the National Guard as being able to supplement the local law enforcement and to make a very dramatic statement to calm the media down and to calm the citizenry down. That's when I called in the members of the Guard who knew policing, and I asked them to come in and to show force, to show that we were in control of the environment.
... Describe the scene. ...
The media was making huge statements about how lawlessness was prevailing. Local officials were coming in ... to the emergency operations office in Baton Rouge telling me that people who were dependent on drugs were breaking into the drugstores and stealing guns from the gun stores and that lawlessness was prevailing. They were also repeating the stories about rape, raping babies and things like that.
I kept asking them, did they know firsthand? Could they confirm that? But I got a sense that everybody here had now gotten very fearful -- fearing for their lives -- whether it was justified or not. I could not tell if it was really justified.
We could not confirm a great deal of this, but I just decided that we needed to make a very strong statement to give the people some comfort, because they were getting the word ... that we were in control.
It actually did work, because the tone changed that day. I just made the strong statement that I was sending in the National Guard, they were locked and loaded, they were trained, and this particular group had just come from the war zone where they had been trained to kill, and if anybody was going to harm our citizens, I'm sure that they would accommodate. But not a single National Guard member fired a shot at any human being.
... How did you know it changed the tone?
Because the television chatter changed. What was being reported was changing. And then, finally that day at noon, enough FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] buses had arrived, and we could begin the process of evacuating the folks in the Dome.
By the time we finished that evacuation, some 30,000 people were pulled out of the Superdome. They weren't all there when we started the evacuation, but the word got out in town. …
Then we also learned on Thursday that the crowds had grown pretty serious over at the Convention Center, so the evacuation process started on Thursday.
The media calmed down their reports of lawlessness. Then they got real specific about their reports, about maybe some of the police being looters and things like that. But the general tone slowed down. It refocused everyone.
It sounds like you really thought about this a lot, this statement you had to make. Is that true?
Yes, I did. I thought it needed to be powerful. ... I know a lot of people mistook it for me wanting to turn guns on our citizens, and that was not what I said. I said if our citizens were being threatened by the lawless element in society, that those lawless folks were going to meet up with law enforcers. I wanted it to be strong, and I wanted it to be clear, and I was doing it to actually try to settle the waters, to give people more comfort about their personal safety.
... You're the governor. You're the strongest mouthpiece there is in this state at that time. So it sounds like you had a very strong awareness that your words were going to have reverberations.
I hoped they would. ... The rescue operation began, and that was a very important part of calming everyone down. And there were many stories after that of the recalcitrant people who were hiding out in their houses and didn't want to be rescued or they were afraid; they didn't know what was going on. So all of that continued to happen. But we didn't have the masses. Once we moved that 50,000 or 60,000 people out of here, we could actually get down now to the nuts and bolts of what needed to be done in a region that had been physically destroyed.
... You were giving orders to the National Guard at the time. ... Do you feel like that had any carry-over to other law enforcement?
We had a great many problems happening with the local law enforcement officials. I think one of the problems was that they found themselves with their own homes totally destroyed, and they had no place to go and sleep where they were comfortable and [could] recharge.
So many rumors were being pushed out and being fed as fact, and it became very disjointed here. At one point ... we had over 100 officers show up in Baton Rouge saying that they were quitting because they had no communications capacity and no direction, no leadership, and nobody here was looking after them, for their personal safety either. And you have to be conscious of the safety of the people who are the rescuers. You have to be conscious of the people who are the law enforcement authorities. And you have to be conscious at so many levels, and you have to have leadership that is stable and says: "Look, this is tough. These are really, really tough times. We can make it."
But what happened to so many of them was their families evacuated. They didn't know where their families were. Some people were off duty and left town to go settle their families, then tried to get back in, and the ones who stayed behind got mad at them for having left in the first place. And you have this conflict going on with personnel, this internal strife that suddenly was feeding back to us. That was not apparent right away, but it became apparent as the days went on.
When you gave that speech about the National Guard, [did you feel] that it would have a solidifying effect or a purposeful effect on every law enforcement official who hadn't left?
I was hoping that it would give comfort to the local law enforcement officials. ... I just knew that they needed help, they needed bolstering, and that, obviously, things were getting out of control in some fashion. It was not definable early on. It was just this sense that things were falling apart at the seams. ...
... [Did they feel] like they were in a war zone or a hostile environment?
... I think that the New Orleans city police began to feel that they were in a hostile environment, in a no-man's-land. They were disconnected. They could not communicate, ... and they were not getting the right kind of messages from the leadership.
It was like everybody was operating independently, and the police are not comfortable doing that. The state police is a very orderly, disciplined operation, and the city [police departments] are exactly the same under most conditions, so I think they were going through a real sense of destabilization. They were on their own and without a sense of direction in a disaster zone that felt like a war zone in the end.
... [What did you think] when you saw the looters?
When you saw the looters upping the ante, and they were walking out with televisions on their shoulders, and you're in a city with no electricity, I just kind of thought, what are these people about, and why are they feeling compelled to just go in and raid these stores under these conditions?
In retrospect, maybe they were looking ahead for when life would get a lot calmer and not realizing that it would take a very long time, and also not realizing that people would be watching, that there would be a record of what they were doing. It's very discouraging. ...
We also still had a lot of rescue missions going on. I would get calls saying that they're shooting at the hospital: "We're trying to rescue people at the hospital. They're shooting at helicopters, so we're not sending our helicopters in." Not a single helicopter on record took a bullet, not a single one. And that's a pretty easy target. I mean, if you have a gun, you can shoot into a helicopter.
There was so much rumor going on, and, as I said, it hurt the rescue mission so many times. The Wildlife and Fisheries agents were out in boats rescuing people, and as nightfall came, they were hearing gunshots, and they'd see the flash of fire. As they would approach those folks, they'd say, "Why are you people shooting?" And they said, "Well, we didn't think you could see us, so we're trying to get you over here so that you can rescue us." And they said, "Please stop shooting," you know? This is just one of those weird things.
... The city becomes militarized at a certain point, doesn't it?
It did. We brought over 40,000 troops in here. As commander of the National Guard, I commanded one of the largest forces in peacetime that was put together very quickly. ...
There was never a martial-law order?
Martial law is not legal, not in Louisiana and maybe nowhere in the country. ... It's pretty tough when your civilian law enforcement agency goes down, as we saw, but it was not in all the disaster areas. We had sheriffs who stayed together and continued to do what needed to be done, working under terribly adverse conditions. And you had a lot of NOPD people, officers, men and women who were doing what they were supposed to do.
You have a few who were in meltdown, and they put a black eye on the whole operation, and it's pretty tough having to realize that they define you.
Still to this day, there's this mythology about martial law having been declared. ...
… I never declared martial law. I know that it's not legal to do that. You do not turn over your law enforcement to the military on U.S. soil. But what we were doing was strengthening the appearance of a lawful environment. Soldiers do carry weapons but the Department of Defense forces are not allowed to use them on U.S. soil and the National Guard is actually under the auspices of the local law enforcement agencies. …
... Could your statement have been misconstrued, not by the soldiers themselves, not by your own staff, but by the police officers in the field?
It was never told to me that they misconstrued anything I said. ... Martial law kind of has this really tough sound, and we've read about it being used in other places and under serious circumstances, so I guess that's an automatic expression that people think is really kind of tough, and it sounds good. So if the mayor used that expression -- and according to some records he did -- I don't think he really understood what it was.
In that regard, it could get out to even people of lower rank on the force.
And it possibly could be misunderstood, yes.
What's the end result of that, then?
The end result is that you have local confusion.
And potentially things like the Danziger [Bridge] situation, [the incident in which six civilians were shot -- two killed and four wounded -- by New Orleans police officers]?
I don't really know what was going on in Danziger. That's currently still under investigation, and the stories are still coming out.
I think that it was more of this sense of fluidity, this lack of direction from a strong leader that caused these police officers to feel like they were operating in a no-man's-land and that everybody might be a suspicious character that needed to be slowed down or something. I can't explain that.
I just know that several months later, when five kids were slaughtered, it still felt like the city of New Orleans was out of control, and this is well after the early trauma of the storm had subsided, when the rebuilding efforts were well under way. ... That's just unheard of in a city like New Orleans or anywhere, really, and I was just so appalled.
We had actually been talking to the chief of police. He had asked me to send additional support from the National Guard and the state police in a month or two, and he was planning it out and plotting it out. But when that happened, I thought, this is a signal that they still haven't gotten their act together and they really need some help. ...
The dynamics of the storm, the destabilization of the force in the storm, was still being reflected nine months later in June. Now it was really more focused on whether or not they could maintain law and order. Their ranks had thinned dramatically, and because the housing still wasn't up in sufficient numbers -- independent housing units were not available yet, so they were still very destabilized. ...