In between rescue missions into the inundated neighbourhoods of New Orleans, hundreds of police officers, soldiers and relief workers paused for lunch on Thursday outside their downtown command centre, a converted Harrahcasino, when Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco paid a visit.
The governor had come to review operations and lend encouragement. Yet as Ms Blanco strolled past with her entourage, ashen-faced and dwarfed by the beefy troops, she looked more like a woman at a funeral than a pillar of support. The police officers, deprived of sleep and sweltering in their body armour, barely paid attention. The moment seemed to crystallise the leadership vacuum that emerged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
Unlike September 11, when New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani quickly asserted himself as the leader of the city and President George W. Bush found new purpose in fighting a war on terrorism, the flood only seemed to have inspired confusion in Louisiana about who was in charge.
Mr Bush has yet to find a voice in the crisis and Ray Nagin, the city’s Democratic mayor, was reduced to shouting obscenities at the absent federal officials. But in Louisiana much of the blame and criticism has been heaped on Governor Blanco’s shoulders. “She’s an idiot,” one displaced New Orleans woman said angrily on Thursday, sitting at a friend’s home in Baton Rouge as she tried to find a place for her family to live. Others have called the governor a “buffoon”, “incompetent” and much worse.
She has been accused of being slow in mobilising the state-controlled National Guard troops, who are supposed to be first on the scene in such natural disasters. She has also been pilloried by Republicans in Washington for refusing, four days after the storm hit, to hand over control of the guard troops to the federal government. In addition, while she requested federal help and declared a state of emergency two days before the storm hit, she asked for a mere $9m (€7m) in aid from Washington, most of it to help with evacuations. “We were totally unprepared,” one New Orleans police officer said, “[but] once the feds got involved, stuff flowed in.”
Such complaints are being encouraged by the White House, which wants to shift blame for the poor response. Some officials close to the governor privately complain that the full power of the White House publicity machine has now been turned against Ms Blanco the governor and her team.
Hurricane Katrina has been a trial for Ms Blanco, a
62-year-old Democrat who is the state’s first female governor, elected in 2003 after one of the state’s closest ever elections. in the state’s history.
Louisiana has a long history as a corrupt backwater of US American politics. Fuelled by oil wealth, it has produced such outsized populist governors as Huey P. Long and Edwin Edwards. Mr Long raised taxes on the rich and massively increased spending on public works but was impeached in 1929 on charges of bribery and graft; Mr Edwards, a four-term governor, did much to heal the state’s racial divisions but was imprisoned sent to prison for 10 years after his 2000 conviction for taking kickbacks from the riverboat casinos that ply the Mississippi River. Charles Mathews III, the former special agent in charge of the FBI in Louisiana, said in 2001 that “public corruption in Louisiana is epidemic, endemic and entrenched”.
Set against such eccentrics and rogues, Governor Blanco is reassuringly unassuming. Even her political opponents normally have little bad to say about her other than that she is unspectacular. She started her career as a teacher, then became a census taker, travelling across the state talking to people. According to friends, the experience encouraged her to go into politics.
At each stage of her political career, she was expected to fail, according to Jim Nickel, a former chairman of the state’s Democratic party. “Many people did not think she would even win election to the state legislature,” he says. “It may be because she comes across like your grandmother. She is a plodder, not a charismatic speaker and not big into the party.”
Despite her narrow mandate, Ms Blanco’s first year in office won her much praise. She pushed through an ethics package aimed at cleaning up the state’s corrupt image and has been aggressive in trying to lure companies and create jobs in her state. She has proven a tough competitor in ramping up incentives to bring desirable employers to Louisiana. “There is a certain point of going forward or backing down,” she told the Financial Times in a recent interview she sought out as part of her efforts to sell her state to the world.
Tubby St Blanc, the secretary of the public services commission and a long-time friend of the governor, says: “She is not one of those politicians who just grabs an idea out of a hat. She likes to have all the experts around her and mull things over. Some people misunderstand this and think that she does not know what is going on.” Beneath the conciliatory facade, he says, lies a steely determination. “We nicknamed her the velvet brick.”
But the scale of the Katrina disaster seemed to have overwhelmed her. Roy Fletcher, a local Republican who was deputy campaign manager for John McCain’s presidential bid, said the governor was now in over her head. “She is very likeable and inoffensive. But now the bright lights are shining on her, it seems clear she has not been up to the job.”
Many grassroots Democrats have also started to grumble. “It doesn’t seem that many citizens have gained great solace from listening to her press conferences,” says Robert Hogin, a professor of politics at Louisiana State University. “Local Democrats are not entirely happy.”
But even staunch critics ac-knowledge that the accumulation of decay, graft and mismanagement that has afflicted New Orleans for decades and crippled its response to the disaster far outstrip any action that a single politician – be it Governor Blanco or President Bush – could have taken. The city’s police and other departments have been chronically underfunded, leading some officers to leave their posts after the disaster struck. Meanwhile, unequipped parishes were pitted against one another for vital resources, fighting for buses to evacuate residents, many of whom were left behind in the anarchy of the Superdome and the convention centre.
Jim Monaghan, who owns a bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, says: “I don’t know what she could have done to stop what happened in the Superdome. I don’t know what anyone could have done.”
Additional reporting by Edward Alden and Holly Yeager