WASHINGTON – Gov. Kathleen Blanco (search) wiped away tears, recalling the destroyed homes and the eyes of terrified survivors on rooftops. Minutes later, she insisted that Louisiana would recover from the storm that has killed an untold number of people and left a massive stretch of her state underwater.
"We will do it. It has to be done," she said.
Blanco, Louisiana's first-term governor, hasn't hid her fear and shock at the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina (search). Her voice has wavered with despair as she recounts victims' stories.
But Blanco has also shown a defiant optimism and resilience, promising a future for a region where survivors are homeless, without food or clean water, separated from loved ones and recovering from what some are calling the country's worst natural disaster ever.
"Louisiana will survive. We will rebuild," she said after returning from her first aerial tour of flooding that covers the lower eastern part of the state.
Later, after voicing anger at looters, she declared, "We will restore law and order."
Behind the scenes, officials said, Blanco betrays little emotion while discussing rescue and recovery plans. She is inquisitive, they said, taking notes during briefings with the Louisiana National Guard, where she gets new information about the disaster — deaths, rescues, looting, levee breaks, houses flooded and destroyed.
"She's very much in charge, she shows a remarkable inner strength," said U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (search), a fellow Democrat.
During her first tour of the disaster, Blanco reassured mayors of flooded towns and asked for details about what they needed. She offered quick suggestions to pressing problems. She filed away the things that would be needed: a temporary morgue, more medical supplies and the toilet paper and other basic necessities at the Louisiana Superdome (search), where thousands of refugees were housed.
Blanco pressed for help from President Bush and called for a day of prayer, leading a service Wednesday at the state emergency operations center in Baton Rouge.
Her husband, Raymond, said she's been operating on no more than a few hours of sleep a night.
"You raise six babies, you learn to not sleep, but still get along," he said.
Blanco, elected after serving in the state House and as lieutenant governor, has lent a maternal air to her office since becoming governor last year: She has cast two favorite issues — the state's struggling economy and dismal school system — as problems that must be solved if Louisiana is ever to improve the lives of its children.
Blanco, 62, has had tragedies in her personal life. A 19-year-old son, Ben, was killed in an industrial accident in 1997. Her grandfather was killed in a train collision.
Before the storm hit, the governor urged people to evacuate, and gently scolded those who decided to stay behind.
Blanco, a former school teacher, insisted, "Be patient, be safe" while driving. "Bring peanut butter sandwiches in your car, and bring games for the children."
After the storm, she made two helicopter trips from Baton Rouge that included stops at the Superdome, the NFL stadium where at least 20,000 people were sheltered — with a leaky roof and without air conditioning or working toilets — since evacuations began on Sunday. She met the angry and miserable people inside. She heard their stories, she said, and determined that they had to be moved to a better shelter within two days.
"It's just so traumatic for so many of them," she said.
Later that day, Blanco announced her "day of prayer." She asked everyone to honor the people inside that stadium: "These are people who have lost everything, but are still people of courage."