Trying to avoid a public relations disaster, aides to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco fretted over her not appearing in charge after Hurricane Katrina hit, even worrying about her clothing, documents released Monday show.
Thirteen pages of e-mails sent in the immediate days after the Aug. 29 storm also reflect the Blanco administration’s concerns over race relations — specifically, the number of black victims leaving Louisiana to find shelter.
A Blanco spokeswoman dismissed the race issue as the concern of just one staffer and said e-mails were plucked from among an estimated 100,000 documents — on everything from attire to how to fix the levees — that the governor gave to a special House committee investigating the government’s response to Katrina. The e-mails were released by Republican aides to the committee.
In a Sept. 4 e-mail exchange, top Blanco aides bristled at Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s remark that the federal government “is in control of New Orleans.”
“Our answer is the National Guard is in charge of security under her direction,” Blanco chief of staff Andy Kopplin wrote. “The mayor is in charge of the city. The governor is in charge of the state and the guard and security. The federal government is now meeting important missions that it has.”
Concern about Bush visit
The next day, two Blanco press staffers appealed to other senior aides to stop travel that would have had the governor leaving the state on a day when President Bush was scheduled to be there.
“Reinforces the notion that she’s not in charge and LA (Louisiana) needs to be federalized,” wrote Blanco press secretary Denise Bottcher in a Sept. 5 e-mail.
Agreed Blanco communications director Bob Mann: “White House will be thrilled that she left the state. They will eat us for lunch. She cannot snub potus.”
“Potus” is an acronym for “president of the United States.”
Aides also had concerns about Blanco’s physical appearance and discussed ways to make her look strong but compassionate. Their ideas, according to the e-mails, included having Blanco “put a few bags of ice in the hands of the citizens who need it” and stop “doing too many ’first lady’ things.”
“Gov. Blanco might dress down a bit and look like she has rolled up her sleeves,” press consultant Kim Fuller of Witt Associates wrote in a Sept. 4 e-mail to aides including Bottcher, Mann and Kopplin. “I have some great Liz Claiborne sports clothes that look kind of Eddie Bauer, but with class, but would bring her down to level of getting to work.”
“She would look like a woman, but show she is MOVING MOUNTAINS,” Fuller wrote.
Former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown also was criticized for e-mails that showed him discussing his wardrobe during the crisis created by Katrina. Brown resigned amid questions about his disaster management experience.
The Blanco administration e-mails also reflected concerns about racial politics — specifically, needing to appear sensitive to black evacuees.
“You send that many black folks out of state, we will have a perception problem,” Blanco assistant chief of staff Johnny Anderson wrote in a Sept. 2 e-mail.
“Word is already that we are only sending blacks out of this state,” Anderson wrote. We are make (sic) a strategic error. FEMA will not have to answer to the people, we will.”
Responding, Blanco deputy chief of staff Kim Hunter Reed said Anderson’s note “reflected the concerns of one staff member.”
“The reality was that because of the (pre-storm) evacuations, all of the space had been filled and we had no choice but to seek out-of-state options,” Reed said. She added: “Our concern was to get our citizens to safety.”
Taken with the thousands of other documents that Blanco’s office released, the e-mails “reflect a Louisiana-made solution to a horrible tragedy,” Reed said. She said the governor was focused on search and rescue, and getting as much federal assistance as possible.
Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin are to testify Wednesday in front of the House Katrina panel.