Katrina’s lessons for New York officialdom, according to Kathleen Blanco

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Kathleen Blanco in 2009. (Tulane University)
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Kathleen Blanco, who served as governor of Louisiana during and after Hurricane Katrina, thinks New York could have an even harder time making its case for federal funds for hurricane relief, in one crucial respect.

"In Louisiana, one of the glaring things that we could point to is that we had a levee failure which caused all the flooding," Blanco said. "And those are federally controlled levees, so we could focus on that point, that this was a federal responsibility and a federal failure."

"If you recall, in the immediate aftermath of the storm, it was almost a chant: 'levees, levees, levees,'" she added.

Blanco, who became Louisiana's first female governor in 2004, served just one term, which came to be defined by Hurricane Katrina and another storm, Hurricane Rita, after the two storms pummeled the Gulf Coast in quick succession in 2005.

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The storms combined to kill more than 1,800 people, destroyed more than one million homes, and caused an estimated $148 billion in damage—numbers that have served as a controversial point of comparison for Gov. Andrew Cuomo as he lobbies for an aid package above and beyond what the Gulf Region received.

I asked Blanco what she thought of the comparison.

"You know every storm is different and it's going to take its own turn," Blanco told me. "It's going to do different things to different communities, and whether it's a fair comparison or not is beside the point.

"When I was watching all the activities, that were so intensely covered at first, it felt exactly the same. You know? It felt really miserable. And it is miserable for all the people who are going through it."

Blanco speaks in a  soft Louisiana accent and lives in a part of the state she calls "Cajun Country," but she has an easy empathy for the people of Long Island and the Rockaways right now, and an intense appreciation of the challenges that face New York's officials, as they try to secure federal money to rebuild.

"I don't think it's going to be easy," Blanco said. "It wasn't easy for us."

For New York, a big part of the pitch to Washington has been the region's immense importance to the national economy, and its willingness to help other areas when they faced their own catastrophes. Earlier this week, Louisiana's senior senator, Mary Landrieu, praised New York's generosity after Katrina, and said it wouldn't be forgotten.

"Unbelievable," was how Blanco described it. "Senator Clinton at the time, offered her resources, her office, because of the experience that New York had had [after the attacks of Sept. 11]. It was a very vital time for us to have that support. The East did all kinds of things for us, they sent supplies and help and National Guard, you know, just everything you can imagine. The whole East Coast responded beautifully. Reached out to our people, housed our people in many places. So we are deeply appreciative of all of that."

In fact, Blanco said that Louisiana had learned from New York's experience to figure out how to navigate the federal response.

"We learned a great deal from New York actually, after New York had been through 9/11, about what kinds of things we could go talk to Congress about, and what kinds of successes, and what was left on the table too," she said. "So we actually partnered directly with folks from New York, who had been through that experience, and that helped us a great deal."

Together, the states affected by Hurricane Sandy have combined to ask for $82 billion in federal aid, and have just begun making their first pilgrimages to Washington to lobby for that money. Blanco suggested they might want to get used to that.

"I had to go back to Congress some nine times over about a two-year period, two-and-a-half year period," she said. "It felt like moving mountains at times."

The mountains looked particularly steep at first.

"The one thing I would say is be careful, don't overstate your needs," Blanco said. "Because you can go back."

The latest reports seem to suggest that the administration is inclined to request a supplemental of about $50 billion for New York, which would be on par with the $51.8 billion approved after Katrina

She stressed that the states should insist on "fair and balanced funding at the outset," after she felt her state got short-changed in the politics of the moment.

"It was very partisan when the storm hit," she said. "I'm a Democrat and my next-door-neighbor governor was a Republican [Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour]. And it was so clear to them that they wanted to help Haley and, you know, they cared very little about helping Louisiana."

"But two years down, because of their bad behavior during the storm, the House got switched over and then we had a House that was Democratic, and then later the Senate came. Once that switch occurred, things changed for us and there was an effort to create a balance."

The politics aren't quite so clear-cut this time, with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate, and an Obama administration that welcomed Christie on Thursday, and even gave him an audience with the president himself. (Cuomo had his own meeting at the White House, but not with the president.)

"I think it will work quite nicely with New York and New Jersey, having governors of different parties," she said. "I think if they're willing to do it, if the governors are willing to do it, it can be used as a strength, because you have a divided Congress. Use that as a strength."

But in some ways, the supplemental appropriation is the easy part, and the hard part comes in trying to extract the additional funds necessary to safeguard New York's infrastructure against the threat of future storms.

"The long term problems are much more difficult to get Congress respond to, and with the federal [finances] the way it is now, it's going to be even more challenging," she said. "When you start building water-control projects, that's big infrastructure, high dollar."

To get a sense for what was needed, Blanco and Landrieu traveled to the Netherlands to survey flood-control projects and meet with hydrologists. New Orleans eventually constructed a $14.5-billion flood control system, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently dispatched a team of aides to meet with officials there, according to the New York Times. (Blanco said she had put in a call to Christie shortly after the storm, but hadn't spoken to him or Cuomo.)

When I asked Blanco if she thought the state's requests would be hurt by the fact that New York is perceived to be much more affluent than the rest of the country, and perhaps less in need of help than a state like Louisiana, she said they found reasons to deny Louisiana too.

"I mean, don't let anybody give you rationales like that," she said.

"Those misperceptions and those comments end up hurting victims, who are true victims," she added. "Those people were sitting there working hard minding their own business  and a weather event destroyed their lives. We had things like Dennis Hastert saying we should not rebuild New Orleans, that's crazy to rebuild in that place. And I had to demand an apology from him."

"We had lots of misperceptions. I ended up calling those kinds of comments excuses for not helping. Louisiana had an ancient reputation for corruption that we had to deal with, and they were using that as an excuse not to help our people who were crippled. And that just angered me so much. And none of our money was misspent, by the way."

She cautioned the states to implement auditing measures to ensure the money was going where it's needed.

"It's very easy to just spend real fast when you have this crisis going on, and not pay close attention to the receipts and the processes on how you spend," she said. "And then you wake up one day and the federal government is saying, now we're going to look for accountability. Everybody screams at you to spend money fast, and then they scream at you worse if didn't take a count of it."

In the end, after years of asking, Blanco felt like she got what the state required.

"After two and a half years, I think I got everything that I saw that Louisiana needed," she said. "I got it all, but it took going back several times. It never came all at once, it was a little here, a little there. You just have to stay with it because there's no magic wand. You cannot bring the physical world up over night."