As thousands waited to be rescued after Hurricane Katrina, the governor's top aides brainstormed on ways to make an embattled Gov. Kathleen Blanco look more "John Wayne" than "first lady."
Thrust into the national limelight by the storm, Blanco was the target of much criticism for the breakdowns in getting flood victims to safe ground.
E-mails, memos and other records released Friday show how Blanco and her staff juggled thousands of inquiries and emergencies. But as the historic natural catastrophe spiraled into a public-relations nightmare, her aides spent more and more time polishing her image.
Do you think those aides might have served their state better by spending more time organizing relief efforts?
Blanco wanted to air drop copies of a press release into New Orleans.
On Sept. 1, the same night that Nagin snapped at Blanco and President George W. Bush to stop holding "goddamn press conferences" until resources were delivered to his ruined city, the governor suggested dropping a prepared statement into New Orleans from the air.
Blanco's press secretary, Denise Bottcher, considered that a bad idea.
"I don't believe it's appropriate given the urgent nature and need to drop water and food," Bottcher wrote in an e-mail.
This sounds like an episode of Spin City.
Three days after the storm, Blanco complained to the White House that FEMA had still failed to fulfill its promises of aid. While cloaked in customary political courtesies, Blanco noted that she had already requested 40,000 more troops; ice, water and food; buses, base camps, staging areas, amphibious vehicles, mobile morgues, rescue teams, housing, airlift and communications systems, according to a press office e-mail of the text of her letter to Bush.
"Even if these initial requests had been fully honored, these assets would not be sufficient," Blanco said. She also asked for the return of the Louisiana Army National Guard's 256th Brigade Combat Team, then deployed to Iraq.
Five days later, Bush assistant Maggie Grant e-mailed Blanco aide Paine Gowen to say the White House did not receive the letter.
"We found it on the governor's Web site but we need 'an original,' for our staff secretary to formally process the requests she is making," Grant wrote.
The governor of Puerto Rico spent days trying to get Blanco's administration to approve Puerto Rico's sending 1100 National Guard skilled at hurricane disasters. I wonder how many states encountered similar frustrations. Surely it is pretty easy to simply say "yes".
Other documents show how Blanco's aides were inundated with requests from celebrities and dignitaries wanting to visit the city.
"Bush's numbers are low, and they are getting pummeled by the media for their inept response to Katrina and are actively working to make us the scapegoats," Bob Mann, Ms. Blanco's communications director, wrote in an e-mail message that afternoon, outlining plans by Washington Democrats to help turn the blame back onto President Bush.
With so much criticism being directed toward the governor, the time had come, her aides told her, to rework her performance. She had to figure out a way not only to lead the state through the most costly natural disaster in United States history, but also to emerge on top somehow in the nasty public relations war.
Drop the emotion, the anger and all those detail-oriented briefings, Ms. Blanco's aides told her. Get out to the disaster zone to visit emergency shelters, and repeat again and again: help is on the way.
Um, actually making the help arrive would have been more helpful than generating photo ops.
The most important screw-ups occurred in the decaded leading up to Hurricane Katrina as Louisiana's political class failed to prepare for the inevitable. Louisiana gets more Army Corps of Engineers money ($1.9 billion per year) than any other state (California is in second place at $1.4 billion). So money was not the problem. Pork and corruption were at the root of why adequate preparations were not made to prevent disaster on such a scale.
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