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Louisiana's Blanco vows to rebuild

Governor accepts responsibility for disaster response 'failures'

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New Orleans (Louisiana)
Louisiana

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (CNN) -- Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco vowed Wednesday evening to rebuild New Orleans and other areas of her state devastated by Hurricane Katrina so more than 1 million displaced residents can come home.

"As your governor, I pledge that I will not rest until every Louisiana family and community is reunited," Blanco said in a televised address before a joint session of the state Legislature in Baton Rouge.

"I want the world to know what we know: We are brave, we are resilient, and we will prevail."

To those evacuees scattered around the country, the governor had a message. "I am telling each and every one of you, we want you back home," she said.

She also offered a hopeful quote from the Bible's Book of Job: "You will forget your misery. You will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday."

And to anyone suggesting that New Orleans should not be rebuilt because of its vulnerability to flooding, Blanco had a firm message. "Hear this, and hear it well," she said. "We will rebuild."

"Bluntly put, New Orleans and the surrounding parishes may be ravaged, but our spirit remains intact," she said.

"Americans rebuilt Washington after the British burned it to the ground. We rebuilt Chicago after the fire, we rebuilt San Francisco after the earthquake, and we are rebuilding New York City after 9/11.

"We will rebuild New Orleans and the surrounding parishes because that is what Americans do."

'These are our heroes'

Blanco thanked people across the country and around the world "who opened your homes, your hospitals, your classrooms, your churches, your wallets and your hearts to our people."

"So long as the Mississippi River flows to the sea, we will never forget your generosity," she said.

She saluted law enforcement officers, military troops and volunteers who helped in the rescue and relief efforts, a number of whom were guests in the House chamber for the speech.

"These are our heroes," the governor said, welling up with tears.

Blanco, 63, a first-term Democrat from Lafayette who has been in office less than two years, conceded "there were failures at every level of government, state, federal and local," in the response to the disaster.

"At the state level, we must take a careful look at what went wrong and make sure it never happens again," Blanco said. "The buck stops here, and as your governor, I take full responsibility."

While Blanco has at times been critical of federal relief efforts, she thanked President Bush and called him a "friend and partner" to the people of her state. She also thanked Congress for quickly appropriating billions in hurricane relief.

"We cannot rebuild without you," she said.

With parts of New Orleans and other parishes in southeast Louisiana still under water, Blanco and legislators face a daunting task over the coming months and years.

Not only will the rebuilding effort cost billions, but the state's tax coffers are expected take a severe dip.

Two mainstays of the state's economy -- oil and tourism -- were both hit hard by the storm, with New Orleans possibly shut down for months and substantial damage to the oil infrastructure.

Blanco said she has asked the federal government to cover "100 percent" of the money the state spends on the disaster, as was done in New York after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

And in an apparent nod to her state's colorful history of political corruption, Blanco said she would appoint an outside financial adviser of "unquestioned character" to make sure "that every nickel will be properly spent."

The governor said she would work with the state's congressional delegation on an economic package for the state to create jobs and rebuild housing.

She said she will ask Congress to give the oil-rich state its "fair share" of federal energy taxes to build stronger levees and restore Louisiana's receding coastline.

Call for unity

Blanco, a former teacher and grandmother of seven, worked her way up the state's political ladder, serving as a legislator, public service commissioner and lieutenant governor before winning the top post in 2003, which made her Louisiana's first female governor.

She issued a call for unity to legislators, saying that "in order to rebuild this state, all levels of government must work together, as never before, with one purpose: the well-being of our people."

"To the legislators here tonight, I ask you to join me in this endeavor. We need your courage and your energy to rebuild, restore and reinvigorate our damaged communities and economies," she said. "Please know that together, we will all transform despair into hope."

While Louisiana has swung Republican in recent federal elections, Democrats still hold nearly 2-to-1 margins over the GOP in both the House and Senate.

Blanco told legislators the rebuilding process presents the opportunity to improve communities, in the same way a good architect wouldn't restore a structure "without correcting its flaws."

"We're not simply going to rebuild the same infrastructure," she said. "We will re-engineer and rebuild better and stronger levees, highways and bridges."

Blanco also called for creation of "a world-class, quality system of public education" in New Orleans, saying that "our children who have weathered this storm deserve no less."

Before the storm, the city's school system was in such turmoil -- with crumbling buildings and a huge budget shortfall -- that an outside management firm had been brought in to oversee operations at the behest of state officials.

No date has been set for when classes might resume.

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