Louisiana governor during Katrina had cancer
BATON ROUGE, La. – Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who will be forever linked to Hurricane Katrina, died Sunday after a long battle with cancer. She was 76.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has said Blanco is his favorite past governor, called Acadiana’s favorite daughter a “champion” for Louisiana.
He recently said Blanco was “a woman of incredible strength and abiding faith, a champion for the people of Louisiana who fought fiercely for our state.”
Blanco, who was resigned to her fate, said in July her life was “charmed.”
“I do love all of the people of Louisiana,” she said during a ceremony in Lafayette in which a highway was named in her honor. “I ran to serve everyone. My life has been so charmed. God puts you where he wants you to be.”
State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, a lieutenant in Blanco’s administration, called Blanco “our generation’s Evangeline.”
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Jones is referring to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic tragic fictional poem about two Cajun lovers.
Blanco, a Democrat who was Louisiana’s only woman governor, is largely defined by Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
She was widely criticized then for what was considered an inadequate response to the storm that caused more than 1,100 direct deaths.
The criticism weakened her politically and Blanco didn’t seek a second term.
Blanco said Louisiana didn’t receive the support needed on the federal level from President George W. Bush, who also drew widespread criticism about his administration’s response.
“I wasn’t aware in those days that there was some intentional stalling going on in Washington,” Blanco said in a 2015 interview with USA Today Network. “I felt like I had to ask more times than should have been necessary. (Looking back) I guess I would try to put more pressure on the feds to intensify the rescue efforts. I would do something different to get their attention.”
Jones said the extent of criticism of Blanco for her handling of Katrina unfair.
“She never wavered,” Jones said. “I don’t think she slept two hours a night during the first week. She never lost focus.
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“I don’t know who could have done anything more. Nowhere in American history has something like this happened. There is no adequate plan for a disaster of that scope.”
Blanco said she wouldn’t have chosen to be governor during Katrina in 2005 and the devastating Hurricane Rita that hit her beloved Acadiana just a few weeks later, but she said God had his own plan for her.
Blanco, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette graduate, taught school after college before taking on the job as a full-time, stay-at-home mother for she and husband “Coach” Raymond Blanco’s six children.
She and Coach were married 54 years. Blanco recently said Coach was her biggest cheerleader.
“We’ve had a lot of fun together,” she told USA Today Network earlier this year.
She entered politics in 1983 and was elected to the state House of Representatives, the first woman from Lafayette to serve in the Legislature.
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Blanco made history again in 1988 when she was elected as the first woman to serve on the Louisiana Public Service Commission and then served as lieutenant governor from 1996 to 2004 before being elected governor.
She announced in 2017 she suffered from ocular melanoma. The cancer was first diagnosed in 2011 and reappeared in October 2017 during a routine checkup in Memphis.
Blanco accepted her fate and delivered what seemed to be a farewell speech in December 2018 when she was honored by the Council for a Better Louisiana.
“There is no escape,” said Blanco, who entered hospice in April. “The monster is not far down the road.”
Follow Greg Hillburn on Twitter @GregHilburn1