NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - On a brilliant January day in 2004, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco took the oath as Louisiana’s 54th governor and became the first woman ever to lead the state of Louisiana.
In her first address as governor before the legislature, the mother of six, former teacher, lieutenant governor and public service commissioner looked for cooperation, asking lawmakers to put partisanship aside.
“I respect our differences,” Blanco said. “Today I offer my pledge to work with you to do everything in my power to move Louisiana forward.”
But, a year and a half later, mother nature derailed her goals for the state when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 25, 2005.
The New Orleans metro area was devastated. The levees broke, thousands died and water destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, testing the governor’s leadership.
Blanco oversaw the evacuation of 93 percent of the New Orleans area, and a rescue effort of more than 60,000 people. Both she and mayor Ray Nagin were criticized by other leaders for not ordering evacuations sooner and for not asking federal troops until Aug. 31, days after the storm’s impact.
“The destruction is almost beyond comprehension,” Blanco told legislatures in an address on Sept. 15, 2005, admitting failures at the state, federal and local levels.
“At the state level we need to take a careful look at what went wrong and ensure it never happens again,” she said. “The buck stops here, and I take full responsibility.”
Less than two weeks after that speech, Hurricane Rita struck the Texas-Louisiana border on Sept. 25, leaving more devastation in her wake.
To make it though, Blanco leaned on faith that stretched back to her childhood and back to the town of New Iberia, where she was raised.
Born on Dec. 15, 1942, she was the first of Louis and Lucille Babineaux’s seven children. Her mother and siblings spoke to FOX 8 in 2004, before her inauguration.
“Kathleen was always a sensitive child, the eldest,” Lucille Babineaux said. “She watched over the rest of them.”
Louis Babineaux cleaned and sold carpets and was later elected assessor for Iberia Parish. Blanco would follow in his political footsteps. Her brother, Kenneth Babineaux, said Blanco was undeniably smart and focused, ever since she was a child.
“She was constantly reading,” he recalled. "I remember mama would get on her case for bringing books to the dinner table.
Blanco graduated from Mt. Carmel Academy in New Iberia in 1960, got a degree in education from University of Southern Louisiana and married Raymond Blanco in 1964. The couple raised six children together, before Blanco became a state representative and never looked back.
But, the scars and fingerprinting of two unprecedented storms were hard to get past and on March 20, 2007, Blanco announced she would not seek re-election.
A decade later, in December 2017, Blanco faced a storm of a different kind.
In a letter to the citizens of Louisiana, Blanco announced cancer had spread to her liver, six years after she was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. It was a battle she could not win.
Blanco will be remembered for so many firsts, so many years of service and so many accomplishments despite tragedy. She was able to raise above life’s storms, and refused to let them define her.
Kathleen Blanco died Sunday afternoon (Aug. 18), surrounded by her husband Raymond, her children and other loved ones. She was 77 years old.