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Updated: 27th February 2020 10:43 World

Kathleen Blanco, Louisiana governor during Hurricane Katrina, dies at 76

Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who led Louisiana through Hurricane Katrina as her state's first elected female governor, has died. The office of Gov. John Bel Edwards confirmed Blanco died Sunday. She was 76.

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Former high school business teacher served only 1 term, after criticism of hurricane response

In this Dec. 18, 2007, file photo, former Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco conducts an interview in her office Baton Rouge, La. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’s office confirmed she died Sunday. (Bill Haber/The Associated Press)

Former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who became the state's first female elected governor only to see her political career derailed by Hurricane Katrina, has died.

Gov. John Bel Edwards's office confirmed Blanco had died Sunday in hospice care in Lafayette. She was 76.

Blanco had a rare eye cancer that she battled successfully in 2011, but that later returned and spread to her liver. Her death came more than a year after she announced in December 2017 that she was being treated for the incurable melanoma. Blanco described being in a "fight for my own life, one that will be difficult to win."

A Democrat who served in state government offices for more than two decades, Blanco held Louisiana's top elected job from 2004 to 2008. Until her campaign for governor, she spent much of her political career moving steadily and quietly through state politics, rarely creating waves or controversy.

Shouldered blame for Katrina

Katrina, the devastating hurricane of August 2005, killed more than 1,400 people in Louisiana, displaced hundreds of thousands and inundated 80 per cent of New Orleans.

Historians will continue to debate whether any governor could have been prepared for such a catastrophe, but Blanco shouldered much of the blame after images of thousands stranded on rooftops and overpasses were broadcast to the world, and the government was slow to respond. Blanco was criticized as unprepared, overwhelmed and indecisive.

Blanco, left, shown with former president George W. Bush at an emergency operation centre after Hurricane Katrina, was described as 'dazed and confused' in the subsequent chaos. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

A devout Catholic, she asked in a letter announcing her terminal condition for prayers in her final months. She also thanked Louisiana residents for their "abiding love" during her years of service, and described the challenges of responding to Katrina and the follow-up blow of Hurricane Rita a month later, calling it an "honour and blessing" to lead Louisiana at the time.

"Katrina certainly left its mark and Rita left her mark on Louisiana. It made us tougher people though. It made us stronger," the former governor said in July.

Blanco said Louisiana's miseries were worsened by a Republican-led White House desperate to blame someone else for its disaster response failures.

Champion of education

A former high school business education teacher from the small Cajun village of Coteau, Blanco started in politics as a consultant with her husband, Raymond, and went on to serve 24 years in elected office, beginning with a seat in the state house in 1984.

Political insiders often dismissed Blanco as a lightweight — honest and hardworking but lacking in substance as a serious gubernatorial contender. She dropped out of the governor's race in 1991, then stunned many political prognosticators in the 2003 election by defeating Republican Bobby Jindal. 

Jindal later succeeded Blanco as governor after Katrina stopped her plans to seek a second term. 

More than a decade later, views of Blanco are generally more sympathetic. She gets praise for running a corruption-free government and championing education. 

Though she stepped out of the spotlight, Blanco never entirely left Louisiana politics. She and her husband assisted Edwards in his campaigns and became close with him. Edwards called the ex-governor "a strong woman of incredible faith, a deep and abiding love of Louisiana and all its people."

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