NEW ORLEANS —Former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco has died following a long battle with cancer., sources say.
She was 76.
The 54th governor of Louisiana was the first woman elected governor of the state.
Born in New Iberia, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco spent 20 years in public office before becoming governor in 2004, including five years in the Louisiana House of Representatives, seven years on the Public Service Commission and eight years a lieutenant governor.
Nineteen months after she was elected governor, Blanco’s campaign initiatives of affordable health care and improving education and the economy were upended by two of the worst hurricanes to ever strike the U.S. mainland.
First it was Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed, devastating New Orleans. The local, state and federal response to the crisis were roundly criticized.
“If (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) had been able to deliver the buses that Mike Brown told me he had the ability to get instantly — if the buses — I kind of boil it down to this, if the buses had run on time, the trauma would not have existed. The people who remained behind would have been able to get out quickly,” Blanco said in a 2015 interview.
Blanco publicly sparred with then-President George W. Bush.
“The first time when I got the president’s help, they didn’t really want to help. But I had to embarrass them to help, kind of had to threaten to go to war on the White House, you know?” Blanco said.
Blanco ultimately accepted full responsibility for failures at the state level and moved onto the next phase — rebuilding, starting with the Superdome.
“When I started the process, criticism came down on me. It was, like, I thought it was raining fire and I just said they’re wrong,” she said in 2015. “I know I am going to be right and I know they are wrong.”
When the Superdome reopened Sept. 25, 2006, Blanco felt vindicated.
“The city was electrifying,” she said in 2015. “There was so much positive energy, and I knew then, I’m going, ‘This is a good day. This is a really good day.’ Then I went to the game, and we won. It was the most incredible win, and I mean, you know, we almost blew the dome’s roof off again.”
Hurricane Rita struck Louisiana’s southwestern coast less than a month after Katrina, displacing more people and testing Blanco’s mettle again. She is credited with forming the Louisiana Recovery Authority and the controversial Road Home Program, which was often criticized for moving too slowly.
In March 2007, Blanco announced she would not seek a second term in office, telling WDSU that she couldn’t do it anymore.
In 2011, Blanco announced she was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer — a type that affects about six in every 1 million people. She announced in 2017 in a letter to Louisiana, published in a local newspaper, that the cancer had reappeared and spread to her liver.
Blanco, at the time, said she had begun a new treatment program to lessen the effects of the cancer. But she said there were no treatments available to cure her cancer.
The former governor was honored on Dec. 5, 2018, by the Council for a Better Louisiana, where she told people that there was “no escape” from her incurable cancer that had spread throughout her body.
Blanco, a devout Catholic, said she made peace with the disease, asking the people of Louisiana to offer their prayers to her and others fighting life-threatening illnesses.
Looking back on her time in public office, Blanco said in an interview with WDSU reporter Heath Allen in 2015 that she certainly feels secure, proud of the effort of herself and her staff at a time when Louisiana needed her most.
Katrina, which shaped Blanco’s legacy for better or for worse, reminded the former governor of losing her son in a shipyard accident in 1997, she said. Blanco said “big tragedies bring big tears” and those tough days in August 2005 brought back familiar feelings.
“I truly began to equate light with life. You see things in a different way,” she said. “Then over time, I saw sparks of light beginning to shine as electrical systems came back up and people were able to move back in. And there were little beacons of light, little beacons of light until now we’re all back up.”
Some of those beacons of light were from a leader who helped bring New Orleans back in its darkest hour — a leader who fought through unparalleled adversity. Blanco should be remembered for the good she did.