The General of Katrina
He brought common sense and compassion to a tragedy
He speaks bluntly, calling it as he sees it. He’s the guy you want when things go south, the guy you want by your side in the heat of battle or in a barroom brawl.
He used to chomp on a cigar as he barked out orders, but his cardiologist recently put an end to that.
Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, a made-for-the-movies hero, 10 years ago found himself at the center of the disaster rescue and relief efforts as commander of Joint Task Force Katrina.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi as a Category 3 hurricane, wreaking havoc along the Gulf Coast. Known as the “Category 5 General,” Honoré led the joint operation between the Defense Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to organize relief efforts.
As a native son of Louisiana — he was born in Lakeland, Louisiana, about 100 miles northwest of New Orleans — Honoré was saving his own when he reported for duty.
LifeZette spoke with the lieutenant general about his experience of 10 years ago. What stands out for him about that awful crisis?
“You got to get to the most vulnerable citizens early,” said Honoré. “The elderly, the disabled, the poor. The homes of the poor, being the most poorly constructed, are the most vulnerable. So get there first – take care of those folks first.”
Another huge lesson? Communications.
“The cell towers went down during Katrina,” he said. “You’ve got to have sufficient satellite communications before the emergency. Otherwise, how are you going to manage a disaster?”
Before Katrina, Honoré was training National Guard and reserve soldiers at Fort Gillem, Georgia, for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. His life changed on a dime when Katrina made landfall. He answered the Bush administration’s call for help and hit the ground running.
Hurricane Katrina exploded with unparalleled ferocity as it moved into the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 26, 2005, prompting warnings along the coastal South. New Orleans, the lively southern city known for its jazz and gumbo, seemed to be in Katrina’s crosshairs.
Despite repeated warnings to evacuate, almost everyone in Katrina’s path was stunned — citizens, legislators, and local, state and federal law enforcement. To handle the multitudes of hurricane victims, the federal government turned to this plain-spoken three-star general.
Gruffly shooting off one-liners as he coordinated police and military efforts on behalf of the frustrated, the stricken and the hungry, he brought a much-needed — and yes, loud — voice to the disaster zone.
When a reporter questioned him about the slow trickle of supplies into the city after the storm, Honoré famously snapped back, “We ain’t stuck on stupid.”
He brought a much-needed, and yes, loud voice to the disaster zone.
Insisting on treating the frightened residents — most of them poor — with dignity and respect, he was firm about not forcing people to leave their homes if they chose not to despite repeating warnings. He also could be heard yelling, “Weapons down! Weapons down!” to weary police and military officers trying to control the frightened throngs of people who streamed down roads and over bridges, looking for food, water and shelter.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who at the time shared a dour assessment of the Bush administration’s response to Katrina, had high praise about the lieutenant general.
“You sent one John Wayne dude down here that can get some stuff done,” Nagin said, the Associated Press reported.
The hurricane, and the flooding in the New Orleans region that followed, showed an ugly underbelly.
“You sent one John Wayne dude down here that can get some stuff done,” Ray Nagin said.
“Katrina exposed (a) vulnerability in New Orleans that was already there,” Honoré told LifeZette. “You’ve got the largest concentration of poor people in the South in that area.”
When asked what he thought when he first saw the sick, handicapped and elderly pouring into New Orleans’ Superdome, Honoré said, “How did this happen?” His next thought was pure Army: “Let’s get it done. This can be done. This is logistics.”
Soon he was a New Orleans icon, coordinating state and local law enforcement with military efforts in a complementary, not oppositional, fashion. He reminded soldiers that they weren’t in Iraq, but America — and to act accordingly. Then he oversaw the evacuation from the Superdome, loading citizens onto trucks, buses and helicopters and impacting countless lives.
Honoré was a battalion commander in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm and today is retired from the Army.
Today, on the 10th anniversary of the storm, Honoré is speaking in New Orleans at the Katrina Commemorative Conference. The event honors the many civil servants, law enforcement members, firemen, military, educators, medical staff and others who came to the aid of the community during the worst of Hurricane Katrina and helped during the long recovery period afterward as well.
Honoré is busier than ever these days. He has written two books on emergency preparedness, including his latest, “Leadership in the New Normal.” He’s also founded The Honoré Center for Student Achievement.
“I am concerned about the future when two billion in the world today don’t have electricity or running water.”
Honoré was a battalion commander in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Today he is retired from the Army. He holds a master’s degree in human resources and received an honorary doctorate in public administration from Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He also received an honorary doctorate in law from Stillman College.
A forward-thinker, Honoré worries about the issues that face a global society. “I am concerned about the future when two billion in the world today don’t have electricity or running water,” he said.
He is also unhappy about the growing friction in American communities between the haves and the have-nots.
“You got some folks in line at Starbucks spending $4 on a coffee-latta-datta – whatever you want to call it, and you got folks down the street that have nothin’,” he said.
Referencing the recent Baltimore riots, he also said, “You’ve got the chaos goin’ on in Baltimore right in the shadows of D.C., and officials there got their heads up their ass when it comes to dealin’ with it.”
This article has been updated.