Skip to comments.Reluctant Hero of Katrina Recovery Aims to Keep Focus on Mission
Posted on 09/22/2005 6:25:01 AM PDT by Incorrigible
Reluctant Hero of Katrina Recovery Aims to Keep Focus on Mission
BY JEFF DUNCAN
NEW ORLEANS -- As he strides through the rubble that once was this city's downtown, the sturdy caramel-skinned man with the aviator sunglasses and the black beret brandishing three shiny silver stars is the focus of all eyes.
Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the commanding general of Joint Task Force Katrina, is on the scene -- and everybody knows it.
Police officers, relief workers and medical personnel flock to him to shake his hand or pose for pictures. One by one, U.S. senators fight their way through the crowd to congratulate him for his efforts.
His aide, Lt. Col. Richard Steele, constantly fields e-mails on his BlackBerry requesting interviews. Vanity Fair Magazine, CNN's Larry King, "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation" are jockeying for his time.
Honore didn't sign up for this. When President Bush assigned him to command Joint Task Force Katrina, he knew it would be the most difficult operation of his life. He commands more than 20,000 active-duty troops from all military branches devoted to the storm recovery operation in a three-state region. He didn't anticipate he'd become a national celebrity.
The 36-year military veteran from Lakeland, La., has become Hurricane Katrina's reluctant superstar.
"The General is getting tired of all of these profiles," Steele said. "He's a humble guy. He didn't want to become a celebrity from all this. He wants the focus to be on the mission and not on himself."
The Honore legend began from the moment his boot hit Canal Street and national TV cameras captured him dressing down soldiers for carrying their firearms with the barrels pointed too high.
Then, with the floodwaters rising and his city in disarray, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin cemented Honore's hero status during an emotional radio interview in the chaotic days after the storm. A few breaths after he ripped Bush and the federal government for their slow response, Nagin went out of his way to praise Honore, admiringly dubbing the general "one John Wayne dude."
"He came off the doggone chopper, and he started cussing and people started moving," Nagin said. "And he's getting some stuff done. They ought to give that guy -- if they don't want to give it to me, give him full authority to get the job done, and we can save some people."
Honore became an overnight sensation.
In the aftermath of the storm, he's emerged as the white knight for those affected by Katrina, a salty-mouthed, cigar-chompin' guardian angel in camouflage. His take-charge attitude and no-nonsense style have endeared him to storm victims, who were frustrated by the dithering and finger-pointing of administration officials.
"We're very fortunate to have someone of his experience and ability here," said New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass. "He's a good man and very much has control of the Army. He and I have worked together very, very well."
Time Magazine said he's built a strong case for its prestigious Man of the Year award, and it's almost certain President Bush will reward him with a fourth star for his tireless work in the flooded streets of New Orleans and the debris-strewn land of the Mississippi and Alabama coasts.
"He deserves it," said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, who, under Honore's direction, commands the 7,000 active-duty troops in the 82nd Airborne Division. "He's a great leader. He knows the area, understands the people and doesn't take no for an answer."
A quick study, Honore has learned to refine his message to the media. Many of his pet phrases are now well known to the hundreds of reporters who have covered the story daily since Aug. 29. Among them:
"The storm had a vote."
"Don't confuse a plan with execution. A plan is like good intentions. You don't win with good intentions."
"You're looking at a calendar, and I'm looking at my watch."
"Normally, we go in and break things. Here we're trying to fix things."
Honore has compared Katrina to a military opponent, saying the hurricane made "a classic military maneuver" by surprising its victims and overwhelming them with shock and force.
"This was an evil storm," Honore said. "We've got a disaster of biblical proportions here."
He's also fond of comparing the mission to a football game.
"By definition, you're going to lose the first quarter in a disaster," he said in a now well-worn analogy. "What does a coach do when his team is losing 25-0 after the first quarter? Does he call the quarterback over and tell him how stupid he is because he didn't play right or does he get out the white board and start making adjustments?
"Now we can stay talking about the first quarter. All of you are talking about the first quarter. But there's still three quarters left to this thing. The next three quarters can be as tragic as the first quarter if we don't handle this right."
Lately, Honore has grown increasingly weary of dealing with the horde of reporters in the area. During a briefing with city officials at City Hall last week, he spent most of his time checking his watch and working his cell phone. After 15 minutes and one question, he shook Compass' hand and bolted.
"I can't swing a stick and not a hit a reporter," Honore said. "I didn't know there were so many of 'em."
Honore tangled with two reporters Friday during an impromptu press conference at the staging area at Harrah's Casino.
When grilled about the breakdowns in security for the thousands of evacuees at the city's convention center, he showed reporters why his troops have nicknamed him "The Ragin' Cajun."
"OK, reporter," he growled. "How many people did you take out? How many people did you give water to?"
Honore is uniquely qualified for the mission. He served as the commander of the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea and was the commander of the Standing Joint Force Headquarters for Homeland Security, part of the U.S. Northern Command. He saw action in Iraq and Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm and holds a master's degree in human resources management.
As a Louisiana native and commanding general of the 1st Army at Fort Gillem, Ga., Honore was familiar with the disaster zone. Honore spent two summers with relatives in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. As a child, he spent two weeks at the city's Charity Hospital after he was hit in the head with a baseball bat.
Honore said his primary goal is to save lives and help the city's recovery efforts. He empathizes with many of the evacuees, especially the ones who suffered in the hellish conditions at the convention center and Superdome.
"By and large, these were people that were frustrated; I would be, too," Honore said. "I get frustrated at the cash register counter when the paper runs out."
While gruff and intense with his troops, Honore has displayed uncommon compassion with many of the elderly, infirm and poor people who were affected by the storm.
"These were mostly poor people who didn't have much other than their homes," Honore said. "We didn't pull anybody off those rooftops that said, `Damn, I left my Lexus!"'
The poor, he said, "When it's hot, they're hotter. When it's cold, they're colder. When the wind blows they go over farther. And when a plague hits, they die faster."
Honore can identify with Louisiana's underprivileged. He was one of them once.
The son of a Creole farmer, Honore was the youngest boy in a family of 12 children. He was raised on a farm in Lakeland, a rural community northwest of Baton Rouge. The family raised sugar cane, corn, squash and cotton. They also had pigs, cows and chickens.
He graduated from Southern University in 1971 and entered the Army as a second lieutenant through the ROTC program. He rose steadily through the ranks.
Honore, 58, and his wife, Beverly, have four children. Oldest son Michael, 29, is an Army sergeant in Baghdad. Their youngest child, Stephen, is 15.
His oldest daughter, Stephanie, lives in Florida, where she recently gave birth to Honore's first grandson. The other, Kimberly, lives in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner. She evacuated to Stephanie's home in St. Petersburg when Hurricane Katrina hit. But, like many evacuees, she left behind her pets.
She e-mailed her father daily to rescue her cat, Gumbo, and hamster, Hammie. After a 10-day vigil, Honore finally made the search and rescue mission.
"I've got 80 helicopters in the air and we're trying to evacuate 20,000 people from the convention center and she's e-mailing me every day about her cat," Honore said.
A man of duty, the General followed orders. He made the trek to Kenner.
"The good news is they were OK," Honore said. "The cat was living large in that place."
Sept. 20, 2005
(Jeff Duncan is a staff writer for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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I can't say I paid much attention to this General until after I heard his latest quote to the media.
"Don't get stuck on stupid!"
Sounds like the direct opposite of Ray Nagin.
Jim Quinn this morning played a bit of that "news conference" where the phrase was used. I like it. And I like him. No B-s from this guy. He just gets the job done.
This portion of the story literally brought tears to my eyes. We live in such an amazing country - a dirt poor farmer's kid can grow up and become a 3-star (likely soon to be four-star) general in the most powerful military in the history of the planet. If LTG Honore isn't the epitome of the American dream, I don't know what is.
Hey, Bozo! You are the bleeping mayor! You had full authority, but you used it to turn your bus fleet into a sub fleet, and your last places of refuge into houses of horrors. You are stuck on stupid and that's why General Honore had to get off that doggone chopper in the first place.
yes Lt. Gen. Honore is a colorful character, but my hope is that he is ingraining a higher and deeper respect for the military among the liberals whose minds have been poisioned by anti-war crap since Viet Nam.
You have Ltg. Honore who overcame a not so great childhood, poverty and what not to get an education, take advantage of all the military has to offer and rise up the ranks. Then you have Mayor Noggin --too busy looking for handouts and always ready to put the blame on others for his own stupidity.
Unfortunately, the MSM is all to eager to promote the weenies and whiners. Not really interested in someone who has made something of himself.
The bad news is that the cat ate the hamster. ;)