Kathleen Blanco, the first and only female governor of Louisiana, who led the state when the devastating Hurricane Katrina drowned much of New Orleans, died Sunday in hospice two years after she was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer. She was 76.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the death of his fellow Democrat in a statement, remembering Blanco as a “trailblazer” who gave her all to the state.
“She stands among the giants who have helped shape Louisiana’s history,” he wrote. “Kathleen loved this state and our people and was a shining example of what can be accomplished by hard work and determination.”
Blanco’s legacy became permanently intertwined with the state’s recovery from Katrina, which killed more than 1,500 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more after destroying wide swaths of New Orleans. She did not seek re-election amid criticism of her response to the storm, which was followed the next month by Hurricane Rita. Her record, including on public education, has been more favorably viewed in later years.
Edwards praised Blanco, who was in office from 2004 to 2008, for her efforts in the aftermath of both storms.
“I hope history will remember Governor Blanco as a tireless advocate for Louisiana, who fought fiercely for our state to rebuild following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” he wrote.
In an interview in 2015, Blanco placed partial blame for the government response to Katrina on the White House, saying she had been unaware there was “some intentional stalling going on in Washington” regarding relief efforts.
“Louisianans owe a debt of gratitude to Governor Blanco, who always put the people of our state first, fighting to improve the quality of life for our families and children, championing better educational opportunities for all students at every level and building a stronger Louisiana,” Edwards wrote.
In their own statement, according to the Associated Press, Blanco’s family said: “Our hearts are broken, but we are joyful in knowing that she is rejoicing in her heavenly reunion with Christ. Please pray for God’s peace to carry us through the coming days and months of sorrow as we mourn her absence from our lives.”
Blanco was first diagnosed with ocular melanoma, a rare form of cancer in the eye, in 2011. She was able to treat the cancer successfully with radiation and did not suffer any vision loss.
But in an emotional open letter published in a series of Louisiana newspapers in December 2017, Blanco announced the cancer had returned and metastasized to her liver.
“I am in a fight for my own life, one that will be difficult to win, battling the melanoma that has invaded my liver,” she wrote then. “I knew from the start of my cancer journey this could happen, but with each passing year I hoped this cup would pass me by. It did not.”
She continued to seek treatment that she hoped would “quell these cancer demons” and wrote that she welcomed prayers from the people of Louisiana as she continued to fight for her health.
By January, however, Blanco had deteriorated and she issued an apparent farewell speech to the Council for a Better Louisiana crowd as they honored her.
“The cancer has metastasized and spread throughout my body. There is no cure,” she said, according to the Monroe News Star. “There is no escape. The monster is not far down the road.”
She spoke publicly once again in July, when a portion of U.S. Highway 90 was dedicated in her honor.
“This has been a wonderful time for me even though it’s been a time of my countdown,” she said, according to the News Star. “All of us think they’d like to die peacefully in their sleep, but let me tell you when people have a chance to make up … that’s a remarkable way to go.”
Blanco continued, “I do love all of the people in Louisiana. I ran to serve everyone. My life has been so charmed. God puts you where he wants you to be.”
“I felt like I had to ask more times than should have been necessary,” she said. “[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.”
Blanco graduated from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and was a teacher, homemaker and U.S. Census Bureau employee before she entered politics.
She was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1983 and eventually was elected lieutenant governor in 1995 and governor in 2003.
Blanco had six children with her husband Raymond: four daughters and two sons, one of whom, 19-year-old Ben, died in an industrial accident in 1997.
“I just want to say that [serving as governor has] probably been the greatest honor of my life,” she said in a 2015 interview, adding, “Being governor in the aftermath of two of the nation’s most devastating hurricanes was not an easy period for any of us because so many people were hurt. I worked extremely hard and I understand now that God determines our destiny and God put me where he needed me to be. I feel that the people of Louisiana were well served because of my presence.”
In their statement after her death, her family said, “While she knew that her name would forever be linked with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it was her dying wish that she be remembered for her faith in God, commitment to family and love of Louisiana.”