Fed Up in Louisiana

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By Jonathan Capehart
Saturday, May 12, 2007

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) went off. Not in a girls fighting, "Hold my earrings!" kind of way. But in a blunt manner befitting a chief executive who endured the worst natural and engineering disaster in U.S. history, who continues to battle Washington for federal assistance, and who is not running for reelection.

We met in Blanco's imposing office on the fourth floor of the state Capitol in Baton Rouge on Wednesday. After watching her testify pleasantly before state legislative committees on behalf of her insurance reform package and for an expansion of Louisiana's Child Health Plus program, I was floored by her "bring it on" forthrightness as she talked about her dealings with Washington after Hurricane Katrina.

"I feel like in the last 3 1/2 years I have put in eight years' worth of work," Blanco said with an exasperated laugh. Her performance during Katrina was roundly criticized and her approval ratings in Louisiana, which rival those of President Bush nationally, never recovered. Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Louisiana Republican who wants to replace Blanco, had a 24-point lead over her in a January poll. Blanco denies that her weak standing played a role in her March announcement that she would not seek a second term.

When I asked the governor if she were as baffled as I by the level of resistance in Congress and in the White House to helping Louisiana with post-Hurricane Katrina recovery (the continuing refusal to waive the onerous 10 percent match required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency comes to mind), Blanco let 'er rip.

"It's all political," she began. "You know, this country's run on politics. But when a disaster comes that is not what you expect, you expect a human reaction, not a political reaction. And I will tell you, there's a void," Blanco drawled, "a total void of human response. And it's extremely discouraging as an American citizen. It makes me angry and extremely disappointed."

That's not to say the Bush administration hasn't ponied up for the Pelican State. So far, $42 billion, not including flood insurance payments, has flowed to Louisiana. Blanco acknowledged this, and then added, "But I would just have to say it's not good enough."

The experience of securing that funding and trying to get access to it has not been pleasant. "I absolutely hated the idea of having to go to Washington, D.C., to deal with the last Congress, because their attitude was brutal," she said. "The old Congress made us feel like we were pretty stupid for standing in the way of the hurricane and that we were asking for far too much assistance.

"They ignored the fact that it wasn't the hurricane, per se, that caused our damage," Blanco explained in a forceful, yet measured, tone. "It was the failure, an engineering failure, of the federal levees that caused our enormous grief. If we had not had levee failures, people would have walked home, and today we would not even be sitting here talking about it." She did say the new Congress was "definitely more interested in trying to help us."

Blanco would not take the bait and say that New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole have been abandoned by Washington, but she was not shy about denouncing the bureaucratic roadblocks and the duplicative and sometimes contradictory rules and regulations of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA for spending the money allocated, that have slowed the pace of recovery. "It feels like the federal government is choking us to death," Blanco said. "And they will not; they are totally resistant to releasing the bonds that hold us. It's like living in a torture chamber."

And what about Louisiana's history of corruption? Might that not have played a role in the bad attitudes on Capitol Hill? "In my book, that's the biggest crock of excuses that I've ever heard," Blanco thundered. "Louisiana has had its own negative experiences, but we don't hold the corner on corruption." She went on to say, "We've not been accused of wasting a single nickel. We have extraordinary review practices embedded in everything that we do. And now we're being accused of being overly attentive to fraud avoidance and holding back the recovery."

Blanco had a message for the hundreds of members of Congress who have come through Louisiana since Katrina. "They have seen with their own eyes," she said. "They need to look in their own hearts to decide what they would want to happen in their own states if something of this magnitude did as much damage. Where would their people be?"

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address iscapehartj@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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