ST. FRANCISVILLE, La. – An admittedly nervous Gov. Kathleen Blanco recounted the state's preparations for Hurricane Katrina as she testified Tuesday in the trial of two nursing home owners accused of negligently causing their patients deaths in the killer storm's flood waters.
Under questioning from a state prosecutor, Blanco talked about the three news conferences she held in Baton Rouge, Jefferson Parish and New Orleans two days before the storm hit. "I strongly urged people to get themselves ready to leave the area. It appeared to be coming to Louisiana," Blanco said of Katrina, which had earlier appeared to be heading for the Florida panhandle.
But, under cross examination from a defense lawyer, Blanco said she left it to local officials to decide whether to call mandatory evacuations.
Blanco addressed the jury directly during her time on the stand. When asked if she was nervous, she replied, "Of course," and explained that she had not testified before in a criminal trial.
On trial are Salvador and Mabel Mangano, a husband and wife each facing 35 counts of negligent homicide in the deaths of their patients at St. Rita's nursing home in St. Bernard Parish. The coastal parish, a suburb of New Orleans, was wiped out by Katrina's flood waters on Aug. 29, 2005. The trial was moved to St. Francisville, roughly 100 miles to the northwest, because it would have been difficult finding jurors in the slowly recovering parish.
The governor had fought a subpoena from attorneys for the Manganos, but her appearance Tuesday was at the request of prosecutors, who appeared to be trying to pre-empt defense attorneys' plans to grill the governor about the state's response to Katrina.
Prosecutors say the Manganos should have evacuated their patients from St. Rita's as the storm's dangers became clear.
Defense attorneys say Blanco and other public officials failed to organize an effective evacuation and help transport "at risk" people to high ground.
Wednesday is the second anniversary of the storm.
Defense attorneys had asked Judge Jerome Winsberg to block the prosecution from calling Blanco as a witness because she was not listed on the prosecution's witness list. Winsberg denied the request.
The Louisiana Supreme Court rejected Blanco's attempt to avoid testifying in the trial. An attorney for the governor said she was not the best person to answer attorney's questions.