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THE STORM [home page]
kathleen babineaux blanco

A former schoolteacher and two-term Lt. Governor of Louisiana, Blanco was elected governor in January 2004 and was in charge of Louisiana's response when Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug.29, 2005. Here, she discusses the situation she confronted, her dealings with the president, Mayor Nagin and other officials, and the frustrations she encountered in getting help from FEMA. She also addresses criticism that her state appeared to be unprepared for Katrina and she herself was unprepared and made vague and confusing requests to Washington for help. "You know, I asked for help, whatever help you can give me. If somebody asks me for help, and -- I'll say, 'OK, well, I can do this, this, this and this. What do you need?' But nobody ever told me the kinds of things that they could give me." This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 12, 2005.

... You said you did well with this evacuation for Katrina?

We did extraordinarily well. There are about 1.3 million people living in the region, and we estimate that ... maybe 100,000 remained behind, including the first responders. That means that more than 90 percent of the people moved out of the area.

But the FEMA director, Michael Brown, says he was disappointed that you didn't call for a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, Jefferson and the St. Bernard's parishes on that Saturday [before the storm]. Is it true? Was he urging you?

I do not remember if he called or talked about evacuation, but if he had, I would have told them that our evacuation plan was in place and that we were moving hundreds of thousands of people out all day Saturday and all day Sunday.

On Saturday morning at 7:30, we had our first conference call, and I notified [Mississippi] Gov. [Haley] Barbour that indeed, we were going to call for contraflow [of highway traffic] at 4:00.

... But I would have told Mike Brown that we were already evacuating people and that the deployment was actually working quite well. I went to Jefferson Parish on Saturday, ... urging people in Jefferson Parish to begin their process of evacuation. What you don't want people to do is panic.

I did the same thing on Saturday with Mayor [Ray] Nagin. I went into New Orleans right after the press conference with [Jefferson Parish President] Aaron Broussard and stood beside Mayor Nagin and emphasized the need to leave. I gave people clues on how to pack. ... And we referred them to the maps. We said: "Plan your route carefully. Pack carefully. Pack as though you're going on a camping trip. Bring enough to sustain yourself, your family, your children." ...

But the question is, did you want both Mayor Nagin and Broussard to call for mandatory evacuations sooner than they did? I mean, there was some resistance on their part.

I can't speak for them at the local level. There's always a concern, I guess, and all of the parish leaders had agreed to this staged evacuation. And when Mayor Nagin declared a mandatory evacuation Sunday, I was standing by his side, emphasizing the importance of this. ...

Our focus for the last few years has been on how to fight terrorism.  And while Louisiana never ignores hurricane preparation, it may be that for some parts of that time, maybe we were more relaxed about it.

[National Hurricane Center Director] Max Mayfield calls you up. What does he say?

He told me that from all indications, this was the most serious storm that New Orleans would have ever been faced with. And I told him that I appreciated his call and I understood it and that I wanted him to talk to Mayor Nagin. And he said, "I can't reach him." I said: "I have his number right here. I will call him. Give me your number." I called the mayor. The mayor called him, and the mayor understood the urgency.

... Then the storm hits. There was a moment there where the reports on the television and the radio are that New Orleans has dodged a bullet. When do you know that there's trouble?

Well, there was just a moment there, always in the back of my mind -- and I said it out loud, whether it was here or elsewhere -- that we could not rest safely yet, because we didn't know what kinds of damage might have been done to levees and what kinds of flooding. ...We simply did not know what area it might affect, so we were prepared with search and rescue mission boats. And we had some air capacity from helicopters. And we knew we would have to do some level of search and rescue. This is routine. In Louisiana, after hurricanes, you always have to go out and get some people out of harm's way. ...

But did you have enough?

No. And we understood that. We have an 11,000-member National Guard, nearly half of whom were abroad fighting Iraq, in Iraq and Afghanistan both. So the general of the National Guard had already notified various states that we would need help, mainly our neighboring states.

How serious was the loss of Jackson Barracks right on that Monday?

It was a startling loss, I'll guarantee you. But at the same time, they did not lose their boats. ...

But the loss of the communication center?

Well, the whole communications network went down. Cell phones went down. Landlines went down. And that was probably the most frustrating thing, the thing that hampered efforts the most. ...

You could not get communications in or out without physical presence, so it became almost courier service. We had to helicopter people in and out. It was shocking to see the interstate system flooded. As you approached the city, you could not get in on I-10, which is the traditional way that you get into the city from Baton Rouge. Then you couldn't get in from the east because the storm had destroyed the bridge.

But you weren't able to talk to Mayor Nagin?

It was very difficult. We did meet with him Tuesday morning. Flew into the city, met in the little office at the Superdome where the heliport is. And Michael Brown was with me at that time. And the mayor gave us the intelligence that he had gleaned on how to get into the city, and he began to tell us some of the things that he needed.

And Michael Brown was there listening. And it was a very good meeting, I thought. We knew what had to be done. That night, I returned to the Superdome on my own to go talk to some of the people there. ...

But more and more people were being evacuated from their rooftops after being in the sun for long periods or overnight, and being put on highways and levees and on high ground, wherever the folks in the boats and the helicopters could find high ground. So you had a very dynamic situation.

... We had a tremendous team of people who were in action immediately when the winds died down. The deployment occurred, and this was pre-planned, to go in with boats when the winds were gale force. That's 40 miles an hour. ... Those people who started the rescue efforts were the state Wildlife and Fisheries agents. They had 200 boats deployed instantly.

They were on standby during the storm and immediately moved in. And the Coast Guard was there with their rescue efforts. We had some extra air support from some neighboring states. That was immediately -- but it was not enough. Nothing was enough for the magnitude of the flooding that occurred. And that's when we certainly began to call for extra help. And just moving more support in became quite an exercise in itself.

When did you realize you didn't have enough [help]?


So why didn't you then call for troops?

The National Guard is the force from around the country that could move in as quickly as possible. Now, I have learned that it's much easier to get National Guard in than it is to get any other kind of effort in. The Coast Guard is embedded with us.

The Coast Guard's on the scene right away, although there's not a lot of sorties. It takes a while before there are enough helicopters, right? You have a shortage of helicopters. ...

Right, of the right kinds of helicopters.

And the National Guard, you have various governors calling you and offering you National Guard. You have your own National Guard, but it's not enough, and it's not happening quickly enough. Why?

... Because of the magnitude. Now, it's impossible to predict the magnitude of any event. You do not know that in advance.

Well, you knew by Saturday, Sunday, that this was a Category 4 or 5 storm. It was even more powerful when it hit land.

And we had 5,000 members of the National Guard deployed.

But if you had to do it over again, wouldn't you have asked for more sooner?

Well, we always in hindsight will do more. But by Tuesday, I understood very clearly that we needed more. And my general was calling more in every day, just calling --

But why was it taking so long? That's the question people have. That's what I want to know, why it took so long for National Guard and eventually for the 82nd Airborne to arrive.

That was the question that we were also struggling with during the course of events. And in the end, the only conclusion I can make is that it just takes time to actually physically move people from one point to another. ...

Are you saying that's the best you think we can do?

I don't think it's the best we can do. I think we can do everything better, and you learn from your experiences. But I do say that the National Guard responded quicker and actually stabilized the whole situation by I would say Thursday and Friday.

I will be interviewing Michael Brown, and he's going to say some things, and I want to give you a chance to respond. And I know he's said to Congress, when he testified, that he got to Louisiana, and he had an immediate sense that nobody was in charge.

Well, he never expressed that to anybody. He was very complimentary. He seemed very comfortable with the fact that he had ordered 500 buses to help with the evacuation efforts. And in the end, 500 buses was a very small number.

But the only point of frustration that I had with Michael Brown was on the delivery of goods and services. Those buses did not start working until Thursday ... about midday. If I had not called in the school buses from around the state by executive order, we would still be evacuating people maybe.

... The other thing that FEMA is responsible for is delivering food and water supplies. Now, the National Guard had adequate food and water supplies in the Dome, although the population in the Dome kept growing.

And by Wednesday, they're running short.

Well, but people were still being fed. And there were people out on the highways and on the levees without food and water drops. ...

But Brown says he couldn't get a unified command. It seemed to him, he says, that nobody was in charge. What's he talking about?

Well, I have no idea, because we have a very organized Office of Emergency Preparedness, and many communities and states have modeled theirs on our model. Did we have enough? No. I recognized that immediately. That's why we began to call in more National Guard. That's why we began to call in extra help from the federal government, and that was supposed to be FEMA. I'm not going to sit here and knock Michael Brown. Frankly, I have no idea what he's talking about. ...

I'm not going to sit here and call names or cast aspersions. I don't think that's a proper role for me. I just really wanted the goods and services to arrive in a timely fashion, and I think that was probably the critical frustration. I don't think that Michael Brown himself recognized the magnitude.

How could he not? He was with you. He saw it when you saw it.

When we were together on Tuesday, he did see it. But I don't know, I can't explain what was going on there. All I know is on Wednesday night I was convinced that there were no FEMA buses. I began to believe that no buses had been ordered. We were moving school buses in, but they're designed for short hauls.

He says that's your responsibility. He says that's the state and the city responsibility to pre-position buses in such a way that they could be used.

But he told me he had that done.

Well, he says it's your responsibility --

We did it, OK?

The city's buses were positioned in such a place that they were flooded.

I cannot speak for the city. All I can speak for is the state effort. One of the things that occurred when the lawlessness began, some of the school bus drivers were afraid to go pick up these desperate citizens. We had to put National Guard drivers in those school buses to go pick up people.

We started moving our buses in immediately and started clearing the highways of people, and every time we'd clear a section when more buses would go back, there were more people out on the highway. So we were moving people in a continuous flow. But we needed the FEMA buses to go into the city for the long haul.

You didn't have enough buses?

Right. We didn't have enough initially. But we kept building on those numbers. But FEMA had identified the [Houston] Astrodome [as a shelter]. ... Our shelters had already been filled up from the pre-storm evacuation. ... And then our capacity to hold people began to suffer. ... Well, for those longer trips, you needed those tour buses. ...

And that was the one thing that he [Brown] kept emphasizing to me that he had done, that he had taken care of. He brought that to me; I didn't ask him for buses. I would have possibly assumed that that might have been my responsibility 100 percent, but he told me that that was a done deal. Now, I didn't sit still on that. My folks kept getting buses in spite of the fact that he said that he had done that.

And there was a lot of back-and-forth between you and Michael Brown over these buses?

There was no angst. Michael Brown never demonstrated a sense of panic or urgency --

A sense of urgency?

I don't mean urgency, but a sense of worry or concern that nothing was happening. He did mention to me at one point that bus drivers could only drive 12 hours, and that it was not safe for them to drive more than that, and then they had to sleep so many hours in between. And I asked him why they didn't double-bunk and let one driver sleep and one drive, and he said, "Well, some do, and some don't." What I failed to ask him was how far away were these buses coming from.

But isn't that your responsibility, to have a sufficient number of buses sort of mobilized prior to this event?

Well, let me say that on Tuesday, we had buses. And we started rolling buses in on Tuesday. And on Wednesday, we got more buses. And on Thursday, we got even more buses. And then the FEMA buses joined our buses. So nobody wrote the book before all this occurred.

But let me say we're going to write the book in the future. And we were doing what was necessary. We were responding and reacting as the events unfolded and as we needed to respond and react.

There's this moment on CNN where you say to Denise [Bottcher], your press secretary: "I need to call the military. I should have started that in the first call." What did you mean?

Well, I had the feeling that there were a number of people in Washington who did not really understand the magnitude of what we were dealing with, and frankly, I asked for help -- "Whatever help you can give me." But nobody ever told me the kinds of things that they could give me. But the system was supposed to produce some things, and it felt like it was not, so I felt that maybe some bold request for the military might spark that sense of urgency. ...

And let me say something here. The political people at the national level sort of enjoy sparring with each other, and the president was accused of not caring. I want to set the record [straight]. The president cared a great deal about what was going on and expressed his concern each time I talked to him. And I think he was disappointed in the response as well. ... When I was asking him for help, he thought he had an agency that was responding to our needs. ... I think he realized in the end that it was not adequate. ...

And he assured you that he would come with the --

Yes. Look, he operated in good faith and confidence in the fact that we would get all the help we needed. And I believe that he sincerely believed that it was going to happen in the best way possible.

Do you fault yourself for not asking for help in the right way?

Well, you do feel kind of bad some days about how rapid a deployment can be. But when you're in a situation at the very beginning, you really don't know exactly what kind of help you're going to need. ... We had anticipated a certain amount of help. Our efforts were bolstered also by a huge core of volunteers. A lot of people have boats in Louisiana, because we've got so much water here, and these volunteers came -- hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. And thousands of first responders from other states came in. And so we were bolstered by a lot of people.

But I want to make sure I understand your answer to this question. You've been criticized for not asking for help in the right way, that you didn't understand the system.

When you say, "Help, help," just, you know --

Well, did you ask for troops? And when did you ask for troops?

Well, it was probably either Tuesday or Wednesday morning when I called the president. And to give him an idea of the magnitude, I said, "Mr. President, I think I need at least 40,000 troops." And I was trying to put a sense of urgency in --

Hadn't you told Brown that?

I didn't see Brown at that point in time. I just made that call. I knew we were getting National Guard troops in, but I wanted more help. I wanted whatever access they had.

And the Guard was slow in coming. They were coming from far away.

Right. And so were the troops. The federal troops didn't arrive till Saturday.

But once they were ordered, they got here pretty quickly.

Well, I don't know when they were ordered. All I know is that [Lt.] Gen. [Russel] Honoré came in either Tuesday night or Wednesday. He came in with a small staff. But the federal troops came in by Saturday. By Saturday, we had stabilized the situation with the National Guard.

There's this important conversation that takes place on Air Force One on Friday with the president, Sen. Mary Landrieu, Mayor Nagin and yourself. What happened there?

Well, ... we gave the president a briefing on everything that had gone on, and Mayor Nagin expressed his concerns. We all did.

He was pretty upset with the state response, wasn't he?

He was upset with everything. He was out of communication. He didn't even know what efforts had been made on his behalf because he had no lines of communications open to him. He didn't care where the help came from; he just wanted it to be there. ... That's the attitude I would take if I was operating in the dark, too.

And I was having my own frustrations. And I told him ... what was going on on our side of the coin. We were looking for all sorts of help and delivering it to him, and he didn't really even know which troops or who did what or anything like that, because we did not have those good lines of communication open. So we were pushing everything we could to him, pushing as we used the full force of the Louisiana National Guard.

And of course, we had a whole region to deal with, not just the city of New Orleans. ... So in his conversation, he just made a blanket statement: "I don't care who does it; I just wish that it would get done," or something to that effect.

Do you find it surprising that, four years after 9/11, we're still dealing with the failure of communication systems in a crisis?

Well, that is the most disappointing thing about the whole operation. We would have still had to do search and rescue, but if we had had communications up, we would have known specifically where we needed to send help and how that help had to be delivered. ...

So who's responsible for there not being a robust communication systems? ... Haven't you received money from Homeland Security for such things?

Well, we had some satellite communications, but they were faulty. You could call from New Orleans into Washington, D.C. … I took the satellite phone and could not connect into Baton Rouge from New Orleans on that satellite phone. So even what we had did not work effectively. We could not put a communication together in two places that are an hour and 15 minutes apart.

But how much money has the state put into developing robust, ... hardened communications systems that are interoperable?

Well, not enough obviously, but --

I mean, has that been a priority in --

We have a communications system, and there were a lot of plans last year to try to develop more interoperability, and it got stalled in the process. There were some federal funds, and I think there was a deadline on them that somehow needed to be met. And I don't remember all the details, but I just know now you learn a lot after you go through these experiences and that we need an enhanced system. ...

Would you be in favor of federal standards imposed upon your state for getting to an interoperable communications system?

Well, when federal standards are applied, then federal money should follow. And I think it will.

Well, I'm assuming there is going to be federal money for this. So if there's federal money, do you have any objection to federal standards?

I think that we should have unified standards across the country.

I talked to a fellow who was number two at the Department of Homeland Security until January of this year, Adm. James Loy, and he said, "Well, that would be Orwellian to impose such standards," and if you ask people in localities, they'll tell you they don't want the federal government telling them what to do.

Well, you don't want them telling you what to do. You want them helping you to do what you need to have done. And I think that we focus a lot on terrorism these days, and if the terrorists ever really learned how to break our communications network, they can cripple the whole nation.

Are we spending too much time on terrorism and not enough on natural disasters? Are we out of balance with our spending?

Well, today Louisiana would say that spending on hurricane protection is just as important as spending on terrorism.

Have you been spending more money on terrorism?

... I don't know that. All I know is that our focus for the last few years has been on how to fight terrorism. And while Louisiana never ignores hurricane preparation, it may be that for some parts of that time, maybe we were more relaxed about it. But I know that our goals were always to do both.

You went before the state legislature, and you said that you took responsibility for failures and missteps with Katrina. What were they?

Well, I said that the buck stops with me, and when you're the commander in chief of the National Guard and all of the state's resources, you are responsible for what happened. And unfortunately things didn't happen fast enough in our book. I mean, we were begging for help. I guess what I'm responsible for is taking it for granted that there would be help outside, that FEMA would be more prepared to help us.

So you're blaming FEMA.

And I'm blaming myself for not pushing harder and for not literally sitting in their camps. We had their representatives coming to us. And my people were over there sitting in their camp, but I personally would now go sit in their camp and just ask the right kinds of questions: "Where are those buses? Why aren't they here? Where is the food and water supply?"

... There are a lot of really good people who work at FEMA, and I'm not going to sit here and demean their efforts, but I think the system has choked upon itself. And now that I know more about it, I think that some money was denied them. They were independent at one time, and they focused on national emergencies. ... Maybe all of that should be examined from the federal level. ...

Were you aware of what had happened at FEMA over the last four years?

I was aware when the Department of Homeland Security was created, and I saw them taking pieces, bringing many organizations together. ... And obviously what they did was take some of the money from each area to establish the umbrella agency.

... But I do want to say something. ... I do hope that our experience demonstrates to every state, leaders and every person who has to work in emergencies that we need to think out every possible situation before it occurs, ... that every six months, we should re-inventory, and that every state ... needs to know where those resources are and how quickly they can be deployed. Timelines are very important.

Well, if there was another hurricane, God forbid, that hit your state tomorrow, could you rely on FEMA?

I believe today we can.

Do you think it's fixed?

I think that FEMA probably feels as badly about the situation as anybody else. You saw a stronger response to Hurricane Rita. ... We had National Guards, thousands of National Guard members and federal military as well, and the Department of Defense.

It does take a while, even for FEMA, to staff in advance of a hurricane. And each hurricane presents itself differently. ... And it's hard to predict.

... After an event, armchair coaches can point to every error that anybody makes, but when you are in the middle of it, you have to try to anticipate. But you need to know exactly where your resources are and how quickly they can arrive. I think [those] are the two important ingredients that you have to have prior knowledge of.

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posted nov. 22, 2005

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