Year after Katrina, ‘John Wayne’ general keeps tabs on home state

Published 5:30 pm Friday, September 8, 2006

When civilian officials couldn’t get a grip on Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, it was Lt. Gen. Russel Honore who took charge, leading federal troops to help rescue thousands still stranded in New Orleans days after the storm.

The cigar-chomping three-star general, whose leadership in the drowning city earned him the praise of even the government’s harshest critics, has since settled back to his chief duty: Training National Guard and Reserve soldiers for their deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the face of the military’s role in disaster recovery and a Louisiana native, Honore has a personal stake in New Orleans’ future, returning recently for anniversary ceremonies and keeping tabs as the city tries to build a better New Orleans.

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“Better is always harder,” Honore said with a sigh while seated behind his office desk at Fort Gillem, just south of Atlanta. “Better costs more. Better takes time.”

When Katrina made landfall, the veteran soldier, who once commanded troops in Korea and prepares troops to deal with explosives in Iraq, approached the storm as he would a cunning enemy that cut supply lines and communications with one fell swoop.

Honore soon became an icon of leadership, a walking caricature of a take-charge soldier whose growling one-liners and commanding presence didn’t just compel his soldiers into action, but civilians as well.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who blasted the Bush administration’s response to his city’s disaster, offered the president rare praise for sending “one John Wayne dude down here that can get some stuff done.” Former FEMA Director Michael Brown called him a “bull in the China closet, God love him.”

Along the way, Honore’s biting cracks came to show that he also had a way with words.

“You can’t vote that water out of the city of New Orleans,” he once told CNN. On another occasion, he answered a reporter questioning the amount of supplies trickling into the city with this line: “We ain’t stuck on stupid.”

His mission came with incredible pressure. At stake were the fates of thousands of New Orleans residents and, perhaps, the future role of the military in domestic disasters.

At its peak, the military’s joint task force had 22,000 military personnel, one of the largest military deployments in the South since troops returned home from the Civil War. No one knew how the contingent would respond when faced with restive residents, but many worried it could set a dangerous precedent.

Honore took pains to treat the residents like civilians, not criminals. He ordered weary police officers to keep their guns pointed down and reminded his troops they were in an American city, not war-torn Iraq. He refused to command his troops to forcibly remove the thousands of residents who refused to evacuate.

The troops he led brought more than much-needed humanitarian supplies and the manpower to restore order to the chaotic city. He also brought a rare sense of safety for the desperate thousands stranded on rooftops and gathered in public centers in the storm’s aftermath.

The military’s response, though, worried some experts who fear local disaster planners will be more willing to seek federal help instead of preparing a strong, community reaction.

“I don’t ever think we want to be in a place in this country where mayors and governments aren’t in charge,” said James Carafano, a homeland security specialist at the Heritage Foundation. “We don’t ever want to be in a place where you transfer the authority to an unelected official.”

Honore defends the military’s presence in such an extraordinary situation.

“When the leaders become victims,” he said, “the need for outside help was clearly there.”

In the storm’s aftermath, he’s lobbied for better communication lines between federal troops and local authorities, particularly a satellite-based communication network to keep a link up and running.

Honore now is in demand on the speaking circuit, addressing audiences ranging from disaster planners to college graduates, while continuing to regularly welcome back troops returning from Iraq.

He downplayed his celebrity, saying he just remains focused on “being a better general.”

One day, he said, he’ll leave the military, but refuses to say if that will include a future in politics — like maybe a run for governor of Louisiana.

With a smirk, he adds in his rolling Creole accent: “You can’t swing a stick at a location where people don’t need help.”