Where were the buses?
Hours after the hurricane hit Aug. 29, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced a plan to send 500 commercial buses into New Orleans to rescue thousands of people left stranded on highways, overpasses and in shelters, hospitals and homes.
On the day of the storm, or perhaps the day after, FEMA turned down the state's suggestion to use school buses because they are not air conditioned, Blanco said Friday in an interview.
Even after levees broke and residents were crowding the Louisiana Superdome, then-FEMA Director Mike Brown was bent on using his own buses to evacuate New Orleans, Blanco said.
During the delay, misery and mayhem mounted in the Dome, thousands gathered in desperation at the nearby convention center, and Americans watched in shock as dead and dying New Orleans residents were broadcast on national television.
The state had sent 68 school buses into the city on Monday.
Blanco took over more buses from Louisiana school systems and sent them in on Wednesday, two days after the storm. She tapped the National Guard to drive them. Each time the buses emptied an area, more people would appear, she said.
The buses took 15,728 people to safety, a Blanco aide said. But the state's fleet of school buses wasn't enough. On Wednesday, with the FEMA buses still not in sight, Blanco called the White House to talk to Bush and ended up speaking to Chief of Staff Andy Card.
"I said, 'Even if we had 500 buses, they've underestimated the magnitude of this situation, and I think I need 5,000 buses, not 500,'" Blanco recounted.
"'But, Andy, those 500 are not here,'" the governor said.
Card promised to get Blanco more buses.
Later Wednesday night, Blanco walked into the State Police Communications Center and asked if anyone knew anything about the buses.
An officer told her the buses were just entering the state.
"I said, 'Do you mean as in North Louisiana, which is another six hours from New Orleans?,'" Blanco recalled in the interview. "He said, 'Yes, m'am.'"
It was at that point, Blanco said, that she realized she had made a critical error.
"I assumed that FEMA had staged their buses in near proximity," she said. "I expected them to be out of the storm's way but accessible in one day's time."
It was late Wednesday. The buses wouldn't get to New Orleans until Thursday. By then, many of the sickest and the weakest were dead or dying.
The buses weren't the only resource to arrive late, Blanco said.
It took days to get a communications system and outside troops. In the first days after the hurricane hit, Louisiana National Guard communicated by sending text messages on cell phones.
The death and destruction multiplied as looters armed themselves and residents languished waiting for rescue.
Brown was the first bureaucratic casualty in the massive governmental breakdown in responding to Katrina.
He resigned last week amid criticism that he responded sluggishly to the hurricane. Brown lashed out a few days later, telling The New York Times that Blanco and her staff were "incapable of organizing a coherent state effort."
Brown said that, on the day before the storm hit, he asked Blanco and Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau, head of the state's National Guard, what resources they needed.
"The response was like, 'Let us find out,' and then I never received specific requests for specific things that needed doing," Brown told The New York Times last week.
Blanco said it shouldn't have been up to her to provide a list.
"Specific things, my God," she said. "(If) they didn't know that we were in the middle of search and rescue and needed to evacuate people, then they were not on the ground with us. We needed buses and helicopters."
Besides, Blanco said, she thought Brown was in control of the situation.
"I had security in the knowledge that there were 500 buses," she said. "Mike had emphasized the buses to me personally. That was not my first concern until I realized that they were not there."
Meanwhile, the state continued to send school buses into the affected areas.
One of Blanco's aides, Leonard Kleinpeter, said FEMA told him at one point that the state could stop sending school buses because the agency was going to bring in helicopters and use them instead of the commercial buses that still weren't there.
Blanco told Kleinpeter to ignore those instructions.
"She said, 'I'll be damned. You keep loading the wagons on the school buses,'" Kleinpeter said.
Kleinpeter said he now wonders if FEMA temporarily halted its buses because the agency thought helicopters would work better.
By Tuesday, the day after the hurricane, Brown was ready to cede control of state and federal relief efforts to the White House.
Two days later, President George W. Bush met with Blanco on Air Force One and asked her for control of the troops that were finally pouring into the state. Blanco asked if Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour would be under the same regime. The answer was "No."
Blanco told Bush she'd get back to him in 24 hours. The president didn't wait. That night, the White House faxed a memorandum of understanding for her to sign to cede control of the troops. Her answer was "No."
"If I thought that it was going to bring one more resource to bear, if I thought that he was denying me resource because of it, and I don't think he was, then it might have been something that I would have considered," she said.
"By that time, we were already getting the resources and commitments," the governor said.
It wasn't the response that the White House wanted. People close to the Bush administration started criticizing Blanco, saying she bungled the state response.
When Bush returned to the state a few days later, he didn't tell Blanco he was coming. The night before that second visit, Blanco learned about the visit from a news reporter and wrangled an invitation to accompany Bush on his tour.
There was a noticeable tension between the president and the governor throughout the trip.
"What was going on is the national media people started picking on the president. So the White House began to defend the president. So they turned some guns on me," Blanco said.
"It was a colossal waste of our time and energy to get into the blame game," she said.
Blanco said things are now fine between her and Bush.
Bush has since acknowledged that his administration failed to respond adequately to the hurricane. The president has ordered a review of the sluggish response.
"Four years after the frightening experience of Sept. 11, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency," he told the nation in an address from Jackson Square Thursday night.
"When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution," Bush said.
Blanco is less emphatic in taking blame for the breakdown.
She said she takes responsibility "for assuming that help was on the way" when it wasn't.
Blanco said she's also learned a lesson.
"In the end, in a really dangerous, life-threatening situation, there is no army that's going to be there to save you," she said. "It's going to be person-to-person, helping each other. Some people are putting their lives on the line to help other people whose lives are at risk. And that's the bottom line."