Wisdom Watch: Lt. Gen. Russel Honore

Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore emerged as one of the heroes of New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In a special Wisdom Watch, marking the anniversary of the storm, Honore discusses the passion behind his service and how the affected him personally.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Every so often, you want to talk about an issue with people who aren't just smart but wise. So on Wisdom Watch, we talk with some of our most respected elders about today's big issues.

Today, we're joined by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore. Two years ago, Gen. Honore was placed in charge of coordinating the military's response to Hurricane Katrina. His efforts were widely described as one of the few government efforts that worked efficiently in New Orleans after the storm. He joins us by phone from New Orleans. And I might mention there might be a minute or two of strong language in the conversation. General, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Lieutenant General RUSSEL HONORE (U.S. Army): Thank you.

MARTIN: So, General, I don't know if this is folklore or if it's true, but is it true that you were born during a hurricane?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Yes, 1947, 15th of September.

MARTIN: You think it affected your personality in any way?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Lt. Gen. HONORE: I think it's strictly a circumstance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: But others down here in the bayou country might think otherwise.

MARTIN: Well, what might they say?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Well, you know, we have a lot of legends. That's the part of our culture here in south Louisiana. They would probably say there was some linkage to - there was some destiny to being born in the storm and to have an encounter with one later in life. But I will leave that to them to speculate. I will use science and just say that it's strictly coincidence.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, speaking of legend and folklore, we have a clip from Spike Lee's documentary, "When the Levees Broke." Let's hear that.

(Soundbite from movie, "When the Levees Broke")

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): So all right, what are we going to do? What's going on?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Weapons down. Weapons down, damn it.

Mayor NAGIN: And they started giving me a bunch of BS, and they started (unintelligible). And things started, and that's when things just…

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Put those damn weapons down. I'm not going to tell you again, goddamn it. Get those goddamn weapons down.

Mayor NAGIN: A black John Wayne dude, Gen. Honore is a bad man.

MARTIN: Of course, that was a clip of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin talking about you when you came to the city to coordinate military relief efforts. That comes from Spike Lee's documentary, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts."

Now I'm sure you remember Mayor Nagin saying that. And I just wonder, how do you feel about all that? I mean, you know, the John Wayne dude, the Ragin' Cajun. Obviously, it was meant as a compliment, but the flipside of that compliment was that you were the only person really effective there, or your unit, your operation was the only effective operation there. I wonder how you feel about that.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Well, I'll tell you what I think about it that, number one, there were a lot of people working hard on the ground. I think the work that we were doing to coordinate the local state and federal response to doing the search and rescue was a role that needed to be done, and many of the people that were here on arrival - I arrived on Wednesday morning. As you know, the storm hit Monday morning. It was tough. If it would've been easy, it'd probably been done already, but we were a part of the solution, over.

MARTIN: Did you feel at all nervous about it? I mean, there was so much water. There were so many people. There were so many needs that had to be met. Now, obviously, you weren't showing that, which I'm sure was a great relief to the people who were depending on you. But did you feel nervous going in?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Well, number one, I was in the United States. Number two, I felt that I knew the people affected, if not personally, a kinship connection. And number three, we knew this was about moving people. And everyone there was being as patient as they could and keeping people alive. So that was the focus of my headquarters working with the National Guard, with the Coast Guard and with all the rest of military, as well as with the FEMA leadership that was on the ground in the city. So I don't say I was as afraid, I just wanted to get it done and get it done now.

MARTIN: But when you had a minute to yourself to think your own thoughts, did you ever think, I got 20,000 people depending on me?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Yes.

MARTIN: And what did that feel like?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Well, that was one that we know we would get it done. It was a function of when we would get it completed and how soon we can get it done so nobody else's life would be lost.

MARTIN: I know. But I was asking about you.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Well, personally?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: I don't know. I never spent a whole lot of time reflecting on that, to be honest with you. That's the second time you've asked me how I felt about it.

MARTIN: Yes, sir.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: And this was more about thinking and making stuff happen, because if you sit around and let your emotions take over, you just sit there and cry, and that's not the way I've been trained. It's to focus on the mission and take care of the people and take care of my people and get the job done, over.

MARTIN: What do you think made the difference for you in being able to carry out the mission? You think it was attitude, training, energy level, the fact that you had a personal stake in it, the fact that you are from Louisiana, you know people who are affected? What do you think made the difference?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: You know, I've been in the Army 37 years now and it's part of our culture to get the mission done and take care of our people. Everybody in America, every agency, every state was trying to do what they could to help us through. If you could focus that energy, I knew we could get it done. And then we were able to do that over time and between, Wednesday evening and Saturday morning we were able to evacuate the most of the people from downtown New Orleans.

MARTIN: But everybody didn't get it done, with all due respect.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: I understand, but in the role, I am - you could sit around and talk about who was doing what and who was not doing it. And my focus in the mission I had was to collaborate with all the partners and make it happen. People working together can get a lot done, and if you don't worry about who will get the credit, you can get even more done.

MARTIN: I'm just wondering, is there something we can all learn from Katrina? I mean, you know, most of us are not in the Army, and, you know, you look on a situation like that, which is so devastating, so unique in history.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Right.

MARTIN: Not unique in our history, but unique in our lifetimes. Is there something we can learn?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: I think there is. I think, number one: Homeland Security starts at home, whether you're in a hurricane threatened area or not. Or if you live in a large metropolitan area like you do, I would suspect, in Washington.

The preparation for potential disasters start at home. Everybody should learn from Katrina, because many people left home and literally left with nothing on short notice, and it ended up having a lot of problems for them later. When you get to the recovery phase to document who you are, where you came from, how do you get your children in school if you don't have copy of the shot records or copies of their birth certificates.

I mean, how quick could you gather a key document as well as some cash to leave home with and leave quickly if you're a local government tell you to evacuate? Preparation in the home and in the family is key.

And the other part of that is local and state government, giving proper warning and getting people to evacuate early. And for those that can't evacuate, to have sufficient capability to try and get people out before a known disaster strike.

As we've seen in recent weeks, some flooding in the Midwest and storms that have devastated communities that you have to be ready to evacuate your home at any given time, and preparation is key.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, were talking to Lieutenant General Russell Honore. He coordinated the military's response to hurricane Katrina. General, since you're in the leadership business, did you learn anything about leadership?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Yes, that the key premises in leadership in understanding your role - if you can make your partner or your boss or your subordinate successful, you will have done something that is for the greater good. My job was trying to help the mayor in New Orleans be successful in his endeavors, try to help FEMA be successful and try to help the governor be successful in what they were doing.

Your audio and video must match. If you say you're going to do something, you need to do it. Always tell the truth to the people. They can handle it. It's best to tell the truth, because if you don't, it will come back and have some negative effects on you. So I think those are key in operating in a crisis with people around you that are tired, people who sometime don't know where their families are, as was the case of Katrina. I think if we do that more in government and in our communities, we would get a lot more done.

MARTIN: Okay. You know, you hear different things from different people about how New Orleans is doing. You're down there now. Some people say a lot has changed since the hurricane. Some people say very little has changed. How do you see it?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Well, I think the part of the city that was prosperous before the storm is looking quite normal. And you're looking to central business district and the French quarter. As you move away from that line in the city of the big businesses and the big entertainment industry and you move into the residential areas, to working class folks or people who are on government's assistance, there's a fading line when you get in that area that is clear that they're not bouncing back the way the business district did downtown or the way this tourist business did downtown. So where you are after the storm is directly related to where you were before the storm.

MARTIN: Do you think New Orleans' ever going to come back?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: I think it will come back. Whether it will be exactly the same, I don't know. And there's certain parts of it we wouldn't want it to be the same. We'd like for it to be better. The crime piece has to be dealt with. It's a city on the rebound. They've got a unique opportunity to reinvent itself and to divest itself strictly from the tourist industry and be able to build a better and stronger New Orleans for our future.

MARTIN: Now, General, you've made it very clear you're not in the feelings business, but this is a very emotional time for many people. You know, that the storm, the aftermath, that was a very emotional time for the people who live though it, for the people who watched the people live through it. And the anniversaries are very emotional for many people, and they're remembering…

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: …what happened. And I just wonder for you, being there, does it bring anything up for you?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: I'll answer that feeling question. It does. It's emotional from looking back on the people who were waiting to be evacuated. Many of them never have made it back to the city. And many of them have since passed away. And I often think about that, and it reminds us the power of such things as hurricanes and earthquakes and how fragile life could be.

But I do still see those faces standing on the street, on the bridges, and at the Super Dome and at the Convention Center waiting to be moved out, and the energy that create on everybody's part who were involved from young soldiers and sailors and airmen on the street to the first responders.

The thing in the back of my mind, I can still recall that one day, this too will pass. And there will be a chance to come by to New Orleans, and there'll be some chance of normalcy where the schools are open and safe, the hospitals are open and health care is available. And the city is set up again to demonstrate the great culture that exist here in the way of music and food and art. And people can come here and launch through the bayous and see a part of America that is singularly only present here in this part of Louisiana.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. And, sir, I have one final question. You have a son, and I think he served in Iraq with the Louisiana National Guard, if I have that correct.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: He sure did. He returned while we were down here working Katrina.

MARTIN: Well, I'm glad to hear it. And we've been reporting on the fact that the number of African-Americans enlisting in the Army is really declining.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Yes.

MARTIN: And I'm just wondering why you think that might be? And if there were a young person that was considering service in the Army, if you had anything you wanted to tell them.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: I would tell them that the Army is a place where you can serve your country, where you could serve your fellow Americans. That to each generation, there is a time. And to each generation - this generation, our nation's at war. As generations before have contributed all the way back to Revolutionary War, now is our time and honor. And it would be a darn shame for any particular group or African-Americans or whoever to walk away from the Army at a time this nation is in need.

MARTIN: Yes, sir. Finally, I had one quick question for you. I know you're aware that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has resigned his position, and some are talking about the Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff to fill that job. So if the Homeland Security job were to become available, do you think you would be interested?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: Oh, you can give them my phone number.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We'll do it. Cell phone or a landline?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: It doesn't matter. They know how to get hold of me.

MARTIN: All right. U.S. Army Lieutenant General Russell Honore commands the first Army, based at Fort Gillem at Forest Park, Georgia. He was in charge of coordinating the military's response to hurricane Katrina two years ago. He joined us on the phone from New Orleans. General, thank you so much.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: And thank you. Have a great day, America.

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