Katrina general retiring from the Army, hopes to devote himself to emergency preparedness

Published 5:05 pm Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The gruff, cigar-chomping general who led federal troops into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is convinced America hasn’t learned its lesson from the storm.

As Lt. Gen. Russel Honore gets ready to retire from the Army and hand over his command on Friday, he says he wants to spend the rest of his life creating a “culture of preparedness” to prevent another post-disaster disaster.

“There’s an attitude everywhere else that people are smarter than they are in New Orleans and in Mississippi. They’re not,” the 60-year-old general said at his office at Fort Gillem, just outside Atlanta. “What happened in New Orleans could have happened anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard.”

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During his 37-year Army career, Honore commanded troops in South Korea and prepared soldiers to fight in Iraq. After Katrina, the native of Lakeland, La., led the vast relief convoy that rolled into New Orleans during its darkest hour. The 22,000-member force was one of the largest federal deployments in the South since the end of the Civil War.

With a beret cocked to one side, a crisp, take-charge attitude (At news conferences, he ended sentences with the word “over,” as if transmitting over military radio) and biting one-liners — “Don’t get stuck on stupid!” he snapped at reporters — he impressed politicians and ordinary folks alike.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, for one, famously called him a “John Wayne dude.”

Honore returned to Atlanta after the storm to focus on his main job as commander of the First Army, training National Guardsmen and reservists for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The devastation in his home state — the stranded residents, destroyed neighborhoods and bloated corpses — “left a passion in me to be a champion of something,” he said.

His next project is still taking shape, but he wants to see civil defense classes for young people that would teach first aid and survival basics, such as how to purify water. He wants to lobby drug stores and other businesses to keep generators in case of a long power failure. He wants cities to stockpile food and water so they don’t have to rely on the federal government.

He also wants to pressure every family to have an emergency plan, right down to backpacks with food, water, essential documents and medicine.

Although he hopes someday to return to Louisiana — he hasn’t ruled out a try at politics — he plans to use Atlanta as a launching pad for the project. He said he has discussed the idea with Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue’s staff and plans to meet with local business, civic and political leaders.

“In this new normal, with the possibility of terrorist attacks, natural disasters and industrial accidents, we need this culture of preparedness,” he said. “A vast part of America still thinks, ‘That couldn’t happen where I live.’ And they are dead damn wrong.”