I first suspected Louisiana was in deep trouble on the evening of Sunday, August 28, 2005. Hurricane Katrina was barreling toward the Gulf Coast. The next day, the storm would slam into Buras, Louisiana, devastating New Orleans, the Mississippi coast, and much of southeast Louisiana. My moment of clarity came when I realized that Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was a pretentious blowhard.
I was with my boss, Gov. Kathleen Blanco, as she met for the first time with Brown in a small office at the state's emergency operations center in Baton Rouge.
I distinctly remember my first impression of President George W. Bush's FEMA director: He was remarkably self-assured. I knew nothing about his background, but I suspected he might be a former governor. Surely no one else would be so patronizing to my boss, I thought, so he must regard her as a peer or outrank her in some way. He told Gov. Blanco to get plenty of rest. It almost sounded like, "You let me handle this situation, little lady."
As the meeting ended, I thought that something about this guy wasn't right. He didn't seem genuine. He came off as someone pretending to be important, not somebody who had the situation under control. Little did we know just how underqualified the man appointed to lead the federal response to Katrina really was. His previous job? He had run the International Arabian Horse Association.
That first meeting was an omen. We didn't know it yet, but we were on our own.
I've spent the last 10 years largely trying to forget Katrina. Friends have encouraged me to write a memoir about what I saw and experienced as Gov. Blanco's communications director in those chaotic days and weeks. My wife agrees. But while I've spoken and written a bit about the disaster, I've never published a "tell-all" account. I don't want to. My view of events was incomplete. The situation was chaos. Those around me were doing the best they could under enormous strain. We made mistakes, uttered embarrassing statements, and sent ill-advised emails. I have no desire to dredge up those memories.
But I did witness some astonishing political drama, and I saw what happens to people and to governments when a disaster like Katrina strikes. Here's just some of what I learned.
1) In the middle of a crisis, you don't know as much as people think you do
Despite spending six weeks or more at Gov. Blanco's side, I often felt like one of the least informed people in the world. My days were frenzied, and I had little time to stop and read the papers or to monitor the cable news channels. I was too busy bouncing from one meeting to another.
One hour, I might be drafting a statement for a press briefing. The next, I could be hunting for the state official who could help me answer a reporter's question. Some days I spent hours trying to confirm or debunk crazy rumors: One day it was reports that stranded New Orleans residents were shooting at rescue helicopters; another day it was the state prohibiting the Red Cross from entering New Orleans. Neither was true.
I sat in on as many meetings with the governor and various officials as possible, and I accompanied her to New Orleans as often as I could. Still, it bothered me that my view of events was so narrow. I owe a lot to good friends who were home watching the news and who would call or send an email alerting me to some brewing controversy. I tried to stay informed of the broader story about Katrina's devastation, but new stories, rumors, and distractions kept coming.
The national cable news networks camped outside our front door, but I often had no idea what they were reporting. Finally, a former congressional staffer from California, Mark Looker, arrived and said, "Put me to work." We embraced him and gave him a chair in front of a bank of televisions. He began to monitor the networks.
But even that didn't necessarily solve the problem. When Mark heard a TV journalist report incorrect information, either Denise Bottcher, our press secretary, or I would walk out the front door, find the correspondent, and set the record straight. To my surprise, those television reporters were often reluctant to issue a correction. They simply changed their stories slightly the next time. I learned, especially with TV news, that the truth is mostly a work in progress.
2) If it's not on television, it didn't happen
Shortly after the storm passed, Louisiana National Guard helicopters and state Wildlife and Fisheries boats rushed to New Orleans to rescue stranded citizens. I asked if a few reporters and photographers could tag along. The leaders of both agencies told me there was no room for the press. One official even told me, "Every spot on one of those boats that we give to a reporter is one less person we can save." At the time, I thought that was a compelling argument, so I didn't press the matter.
Now I know I should have urged the governor to order both agencies to make room for reporters and photographers on just a few boats and choppers. Rescuing people was clearly the priority, but public confidence in government is also essential during times of crisis. The public deserves to know that public servants are working effectively on their behalf — and showing them is far more effective than merely telling them. If I had told reporters, "You can go, but you might have an evacuee on your lap for a hour," most would have eagerly accepted the arrangement.
While the US Coast Guard did a heroic job of plucking many people from rooftops, there are people today who think that federal agency made all the rescues. In truth, there were more people saved by state employees on Wildlife and Fisheries boats and National Guard helicopters. The Coast Guard, however, had cameras mounted on its choppers and captured dramatic rescue video. We had no pictures and no video — just statistics and anecdotes.
3) When disaster strikes, the political knives come out
I had been in government nearly 20 years before coming to work for Gov. Blanco. I worked on several statewide campaigns. I served as press secretary to two United States senators. I was no neophyte. I knew that in Washington and Baton Rouge, politics never stops.
Still, I hoped that the devastation in New Orleans would prompt the kind of bipartisanship we saw after 9/11. I thought government leaders at all levels would focus on rescue and recovery for at least a month before launching the inevitable political blame game.
It turns out I was naive — or maybe just too busy to stop and ponder why Katrina might not be like 9/11. It did not immediately occur to me that the Bush White House would deflect blame for its failures or try to pin the botched response almost entirely on Louisiana officials. I believe it was Wednesday morning — just two days after the storm hit — when James Carville called me. "Get ready," he said, "the White House is about to start putting the blame on you guys. It's gonna get ugly."
He was right. Within 24 hours, a barrage of negative stories began. Some were outright lies: By Friday, the Washington Post and Newsweek were reporting, on the word of a Bush aide, that Blanco had not yet declared a state of emergency. In fact, she had done so three days before the storm. The document was on our website. No one had called to ask us for comment. The Post quickly ran a correction, but it was clear that Karl Rove and other Bush aides were working hard to shift the blame, to paint the governor and the state as incompetent.
This is how foolish I was: One day, then-House Republican Minority Leader Tom DeLay visited the emergency operations center in Baton Rouge. I pulled him aside and said, "Look, we are doing our best to deal with a disaster of epic proportions, but our job is being made so much harder by all the political backstabbing. Can you do anything to help stop it?" Delay looked me in the eyes, smiled, nodded, and assured me he would try to help.
I now realize he was probably thinking: "Who is this idiot, and why does he think we won't destroy his Democratic boss if we have the chance?"
We didn't even try to fight back. I wanted to — although in retrospect, I wonder if it would have made any difference. From the beginning, Gov. Blanco emphatically forbade anything that could be interpreted as an attack on President Bush. "We are going to need this president to help us rebuild this state," she told the staff. "Let them politicize this storm. We're not going to do that."
She meant it. Seared into my memory is the moment the governor learned that I had met briefly with a Democratic group looking to conduct a poll on attitudes about the state versus federal response. I didn't tell the governor that I had spoken with the group's representatives. A few days later, we were in Houston visiting the evacuees when she learned of my meeting. As we were preparing to return to Baton Rouge that night, a furious governor pulled me aside and let me have it for a solid five minutes (it seemed like 20). Back home that night, I had just fallen asleep when the phone rang. It was Gov. Blanco, calling to chew me out again.
I got the message: We would let others worry about the politics of Katrina. In retrospect, she was wise to hold her fire. History is beginning to vindicate hers and the state's record. We now know the state's immediate response to the storm was far more effective than most people initially understood. And Blanco's decision not to wage war on Bush was one reason why Louisiana eventually got most of the federal funds it needed for the region's recovery.
4) When basic infrastructure is destroyed, cooperation between public officials often becomes impossible
The day before the storm, I was with the governor at New Orleans City Hall. She and the city's mayor, Ray Nagin, had just held a lengthy press conference begging people to evacuate in advance of the storm. Afterward, we all retired to Nagin's spacious office for some rest before returning to Baton Rouge. Blanco and Nagin talked warmly about how they would cooperate.
As we were leaving, Nagin pulled me aside to offer the number to his satellite phone. "If the governor needs me, call this number," he said.
The phone never worked, or Nagin quit using it. Whatever the case, we never reached him on it. For a solid week after the storm, every part of the city's communications infrastructure was demolished. Phone and power lines were down throughout the city. Cellphone service was nonexistent. It was difficult, if not impossible, to get into the heart of the city without a helicopter or a boat. For a week or more, the only way Blanco and Nagin could speak was if the governor flew to New Orleans and hunted him down.
That wasn't always easy. One afternoon, I arrived in New Orleans with Gov. Blanco, and we went directly to City Hall. But Nagin was gone, and nobody knew where he was. On another occasion, reaching Mayor Nagin meant me calling one of his staff members who had evacuated to Houston. She relayed the message to someone in New Orleans who, in turn, got our message to the mayor.
This is how the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans communicated for over a week.
I'm confident if Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin had been able to communicate freely in the days immediately after Katrina (that is, if the region's communications infrastructure hadn't been shattered), the response to the storm might have been smoother, better coordinated, and far less acrimonious.
There were emotional consequences, too. As soon as the winds died down, Fred Cerise — Gov. Blanco's health secretary — left for New Orleans to oversee recovery operations at the city's public hospital. None of us heard from him for days. Then, later that week and without warning, he reappeared in Baton Rouge, walking into the room while Gov. Blanco was holding a press briefing. When the governor saw him, she stopped the briefing, went to Fred, and threw her arms around him.
5) In the middle of a crisis, there's little time to cry (but you should do it anyway)
During the long days immediately after the storm, we all just tried to do our jobs. Sometimes, under such extreme stress, tempers flared — but I'm proud that those around me continued to largely work as a team. We supported each other.
This was made easier by Baton Rouge's location. We weren't surrounded by floodwater. After about 10 days the power at my house was restored, and home life began returning to normal.
But while I had never lived in New Orleans, I had hundreds of friends who did. Before the storm, I was in the city almost every week for business or pleasure. Like many of its residents, my affection for that magnificent city is deep and almost spiritual.
I will never forget the sickening sight of an underwater New Orleans the first time I flew there with Gov. Blanco. Even today, I can't quite fathom all that black water, houses and business submerged, as far as anyone could see.
Still, I kept it under control for the first week or so. Then, very early one morning, I was driving to work through the dark, empty streets of Baton Rouge. A song familiar to any Louisianian began playing on the radio: Randy Newman's haunting ballad "Louisiana 1927." When Newman reached his emotional refrain — "Louisiana, Louisiana / They're tryin' to wash us away / They're tryin' to wash us away" — my pent-up grief burst forth. I began to bawl. The moment was so unexpected and intense that I almost pulled over so I wouldn't lose control of my car. I kept driving through tears.
Then I felt a little better. The moment was cathartic, and I realized that I did not have to work so clinically, like a doctor without attachment to his patient. I was attached. The patient was my state and its people, many of them dead already, and a city that I loved.
I realized that working like hell to rebuild Louisiana was not just a job; it was a calling, and a deeply emotional one. It was one that required hard work, but it could not be separated from my emotional attachment to Louisiana.
That's how many of us responded: We worked hard as hell during the day — and we cried at night. As with my drive to work that morning, we didn't have time to pull over and weep. We had to keep moving, but we also didn't need to pretend it was okay.
What Michael Brown told Gov. Blanco was wrong. There was no time to "get plenty of rest." But there was time to work, and to cry.
Robert Mann, a journalist, political historian, and former US Senate and gubernatorial aide, holds the Manship Chair in Journalism at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.