As looters and Hurricane Katrina floodwaters ravaged New Orleans, Gov. Kathleen Blanco's top aides were inundated with requests from around the world, from celebrities, dignitaries and people whose relatives were trapped in the city, according to newly released documents.
Dan Rather and Oprah Winfrey wanted interviews. An outspoken congresswoman wanted a security escort in the flooded city. Cuba's dictator offered medical help; Venezuela's president wanted to chat with the governor.
The correspondence also shows that Blanco staffers also sought to boost her image and debunk rumors about rampant violence.
"FYI, the shooting of looters in Jefferson Parish is still unconfirmed," said an e-mail message from a state police lieutenant to Bob Mann, Blanco's communications director, four days after the storm struck.
The contents of Mann's e-mail inbox from Aug. 23 through Sept. 6 — hundreds of messages each day — make up part of the estimated 100,000 pages of documents Blanco's office sent on Friday to two congressional committees investigating government failures in preparing for and responding to Katrina.
Many are police reports about traffic, weather and crime, logs of calls from people needing to be rescued, plus public statements from the governor and day-by-day official reports on flooding, refugees and evacuation efforts.
Typo-laden e-mail messages deal with improving the public's perception of Blanco, who in the early days of the crisis appeared on television looking stricken and grim, and once wept during a news conference. In response, her aides sought ways to play up her strengths, even while the news media continued broadcasting images of thousands of people waiting to be rescued.
"We need to show the public that we've moved x number of people ... that all the shelters in La are full," speechwriter Chris Frink wrote in a Sept. 3 e-mail. "TV is giving the public a view of this entire crisis based on small, limited perspextives."
Blanco's aides were also aware of racial politics — an issue conjured up by the crowds of black New Orleanians who were forced out of their homes by flooding, then waited for days to be rescued, without food or water. When U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a black Democrat from California, requested security escorts for a New Orleans visit, the head of state police denied the request, saying troopers were busy elsewhere.
Johnny Anderson, an assistant chief of staff to Blanco, warned colleagues to be cautious in dealing with Waters, who is often outspoken about race.
"Please handle this very carefully," Anderson wrote in an e-mail. "We are getting enough bad national press on race relations."
Other e-mails reflect the need to dampen rumors that swirled about violence and deaths. On Sept. 3, Blanco chief of staff Andy Kopplin reminded staffers not to pass on unfounded information, after he heard that evacuees had been quoted on the radio saying eight people per hour were dying inside the Louisiana Superdome. The report was false.
"OK, please don't spread info like this even if conveyed by media as it is unconfirmed," Kopplin wrote.
Larry King, Dr. Phil, Oprah Winfrey and other television stars wanted Blanco on their TV shows; reporters from around the world wanted to interview her.
Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, contacted the governor's office on Aug. 30. He wanted Blanco to call him back to discuss Katrina.
"This might be one we should return as soon as possible," Paine Gowen, an executive assistant to Blanco, wrote in an e-mail.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro offered to send medical help. Louisiana economic development chief Mike Olivier wrote in an e-mail he had spoken with the Cuban ambassador. He suggested some sort of response to the dictator's offer: "Even a written email from the Governor would be good."
The documents involving the storm were requested by the House Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Blanco has said the documents will reflect that "dedicated employees of the state of Louisiana worked tirelessly and effectively during this period to save many thousands of lives."
Blanco initially opposed the congressional investigations, saying an independent committee should instead be formed similar to the panel that looked into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The House committee has also requested documents from the White House and other federal agencies regarding their response to the disaster.