Communities across the Gulf Coast are commemorating 15 years since Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, which hit on Monday, August 29, 2005. The anniversary comes as the region is rocked by simultaneous disasters: COVID-19 cases are still high in Gulf states, and Hurricane Laura crashed into the Texas-Louisiana border early Thursday morning.
To reflect on what we have — and haven’t — learned since Katrina, Southerly spoke to retired Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, the Louisiana native and commander of Joint Task Force Katrina who led the Department of Defense’s response to the storm in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. We talked about his transition to environmental advocacy and disaster preparation, how he is using his experience as a logistics wizard to tackle pandemic response, and the perils of dis-information. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Southerly: I’m talking to you from New Orleans, where we’ve been watching these back to back storms in the Gulf while still very much experiencing the pandemic. What do you remember from 15 years ago this week, anticipating the storm?
General Honoré: I remember the flurry of information taking over the news cycle as Katrina came out of Cuba … There was confusion as we watched the city of New Orleans prepare. I was in Atlanta at my headquarters, and we were prepared for the worst case scenario. On Thursday, we put in a request for ships and aircraft to be prepared to respond in that area. We were told we cannot approve this because we don’t have a request from FEMA yet. So, it’s a category three storm coming, and the government said, well, we can’t approve your request.
I knew it was gonna be a long road. The mayor was calling for evacuation. The school board in New Orleans decided to leave schools open because the Saints were playing a preseason game in the Superdome that night, and the rationale was, well, if we close the schools, what the people gonna do with their children cause they’re staying in town for the game. That’s the kind of conflicting messages we had going on. Because if the Saints are gonna play, it must be safe. So they listened to what the football team was doing as opposed to what the mayor was telling them.
And then by Saturday … the National Hurricane Center said you better get Louisiana ready. And it was on that day, President [George W.] Bush signed a pre-storm declaration, which gives Louisiana and FEMA, as well as Mississippi, authority to spend what money they need to get prepared. The evacuation started in earnest on Saturday morning. Cars were backed up in every direction headed north, east, and west of people trying to evacuate the city. It was a nervous, anxious time to see what was gonna happen.
Can you set the scene of arriving at the Superdome?
GH: Tuesday evening, I had been designated Commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, and on Wednesday morning, I had a helicopter meet me in Biloxi, Mississippi. A Navy helicopter from the USS Baton met me there and flew me into the Superdome. I arrived at about 9:45 on Wednesday morning, and met the mayor, the National Guard representative, and the FEMA representative at the Superdome in a little outbuilding by the helipad. The mayor made it clear the number one priority was to evacuate the people out of New Orleans. The Superdome was surrounded by water, with about 15,000 people standing on the plaza outside. It was hot and muggy and nasty. They were stressed, they were tired, they had been up for hours.
Right at that point in time [the priority was] to continue to try and get food and water to people, keep them alive. And helicopters were busy, still taking people from the top of roofs. A lot of volunteers with boats were moving around the city picking people up and taking them to high ground. Sometimes they just took them to the high-rise interstate and dropped them off there. The evacuation at that point had started to flow, but no buses had arrived to take people out of the Superdome. Buses didn’t arrive ’til Thursday.
I flew to Baton Rouge to meet the governor. She told me she wanted me to go back to New Orleans and lead the effort in helping with the evacuation. She also told me to tell the president to send all the troops he could — up to 80,000. I went over and saw Michael Brown, who was the head of FEMA, and he was in a nice, air-conditioned RV-type command center. He said, ‘General, I’m glad you’re here. I want you sitting right here next to me.’ And I looked around and I said, ‘I’m not sitting here. The problem is in New Orleans.’ I said, ‘I’ll send somebody to sit here, but I’m not staying here. I’m going back to New Orleans.’ And he looked a little flustered. He said, ‘Well, I need to have you define command, I need you here with me.’ ‘No, you don’t need me. You need somebody who can talk to me when you need to. I’m going back to New Orleans.’ And I left, and flew back to New Orleans and started to execute what the governor had asked us to do which was to help coordinate the evacuation. The National Guard did all the heavy lifting because my troops hadn’t arrived yet and they were taking care of the people the best they could. Them and the city police departments.
S: You’re often credited for “restoring order” to New Orleans after Katrina, and have talked before about your efforts to dispel rumors in the city in the days following the storm. Why was this one of your primary tasks?
GH: There was a lot of disinformation flowing about looting. There was disinformation about people blowing levees. And the local responders, including the mayor and all of his infrastructure, were survivors of the storm themselves. It’s hard for you to do your mission when you are a survivor, and you’ve lost your home — it’s underwater. Eighty percent of the city was underwater. We had a lot of reporters fly in from all over the world, who literally would talk to somebody on the street, and then two minutes later that information is being broadcast across the world, with no cross-check of information. There were a lot of stories coming out about gangs in and around the convention center. Most of that was found to be not true. But once that rumor started, we had to defuse that. There were also rumors of snipers in New Orleans. We had to defuse that because there were no snipers in New Orleans. And it went on from one story to the next. At one point in time, probably the biggest contribution I made was to try and speak with one voice and to deal with disinformation.
S: On the Floodlines podcast, you said you told the National Guard to hold their guns pointed down to signal that they were not there to threaten people. When I first listened to it, protests against law enforcement were going on across the country, and I couldn’t help but feel a resonance with that story you told about officers spreading false information and, also, showing clear bias against Black people. How have you been taking in this summer’s protests?
GH: This summer’s protests are themselves a new watermark in our history. I don’t ever recall the level of protests we have. Most of them are peaceful, and many of them have violence mixed in. Violence from the perspective of assaults on police and assaults and destruction of property, which many Americans take as an affront to peaceful protests. I’ve never seen protests so…the demographics of them. I had never seen that. There was some of it in what was the peaceful protests of the Civil Rights movement. And were there some riots? Yeah. But the modern civil disturbance that occurred over the summer got the nation’s attention that something needs to be done about our justice system and the aggressive actions of police in different cities or all around the country. Maybe we shouldn’t be shooting people who resist arrest or … kill people once they have been apprehended, as was the case with George Floyd. I think it’s a wake up call to the country that we need to reform our police actions and we need to re-do our justice system and hold people accountable if they themselves in the process of enforcing the law, break the law. That has raised the consciousness of the American people. We got to see ourselves in the mirror.
S: You founded the Louisiana Green Army, a “coalition of civic, community, and environmental groups and concerned citizens from around the state ready to effect meaningful social, political, and environmental change in Louisiana.” It covers a broad range of issues—from coastal erosion to cutting back on drilling and fracking to keeping former industry officials out of the state department of environmental quality. How do you see these different issues connecting to each other?
GH: Well, we are at the mercy of the people with the money, and that is the industrial base and petrochemical industry. They have the money and they donate money to the legislatures, which basically silence them on any issues. They have too much influence in the [Louisiana] Department of Environmental Quality, and they have a lot of influence in the Department of Conservation, which oversees the land, the water and the pipelines, and the drilling rigs. That being said, there’s a term of crisis we call regulatory capture. Regulatory capture is when the industry tells the regulators what to do. And they’ve been successfully doing that by passing laws that favor the industry as opposed to enforcing the Clean Air and the Clean Water Act.
S: Can you speak to the connections between this environmental work and issues of injustice and racism that you see in Louisiana?
GH: The equivalency has always been there because the laws are designed to protect industry. And much of our industry is found in and around the communities where poor people live. Mostly poor Black people have the largest concentration of plants in the part of the parishes where they live. They refuse to zone those areas. Many of them include sugarcane fields and small villages … they are victims of industrial expansion between Baton Rouge and Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans.
S: I know you’ve also focused a lot of your time on advising better disaster preparedness tactics since Katrina. What have you been focusing on during the pandemic these last six months?
GH: I’ve been working with a team from Harvard University on establishing better testing protocols, and the need for instant tests. I’m not an expert on public health, but they are. I am a command and control and logistics guy. And part of the testing has not had good command, control and logistics. I’ve done advocacy for the federal government to use the Defense Production Act to produce instant tests. Until we get a vaccine, our best chance of suppressing the virus is having a better testing regime. And the approach that’s been taken by the White House is to have each state develop their own testing regime. That entrepreneurial approach has been very inefficient. We’ve ended up with a bunch of dog ass ineffective tests.
S: In May, you briefed the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on ways the Trump administration could improve its response to COVID-19, and stressed that they have failed to learn from past disasters like Katrina. What went wrong?
GH: The states are going out and competing among themselves, trying to buy PPP, and trying to buy test kits. It’s been dysfunctional. There’s a reason we don’t allow governors to run the airplanes in their states when they take off from the local airport, because they’ll be running over each other in the air. We need the federal government. All the successful countries, that’s the way they’ve done it: South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Germany. Our national government was putting out dis-information that masks weren’t required. People picked up on that, and when the mask became a political statement as opposed to a public health. And now we’re staring down the barrel of a big gun coming this fall as flu season comes.
S: The Trump administration has also rolled back environmental regulations and protections. What do you tell people when you talk about the importance of the upcoming election?
GH: Well, if you want to see more pollution in the air, stay with the team you got. If you don’t want to see more pollution in the air, in the water, you need to make your decision and vote for people who are gonna try to enforce environmental regulation. And people who want to embrace the concept of climate change. We know it’s real. We see it from the rising sea levels. We see it from the massive fires we’ve got out West. The amount of drought that’s happening around the world. The ice caps are melting. We see all the impacts of climate change. But the current administration doesn’t recognize climate change as a problem, as a national security issue. The current administration certainly is not on a path to help us save our environment for future generations.
S: What do you think we need to do to make sure another Katrina doesn’t happen? Or is that even possible?
GH: I don’t think it’s possible. I think we can control the effects of a future Katrina, because the city of New Orleans could flood again. Why? Because equipment fails, levees fail, accidents happen, a loose barge can hit the sea wall in the Ninth Ward, or a ship, bust it open and it could flood again. We’re going to have to continue to be resilient, and make sure that we do the things we can do. Much of the city infrastructure was improved after Katrina, but … work that should have been done was not done.
S: We’re facing multiple disasters happening on top of the pandemic—hurricanes here, wildfires in the West, the list goes on. What do you wish would change about disaster preparedness and recovery?
GH: Well, I think the government, certainly at the state and local level is well postured to be able to respond to Hurricane Laura. The big difference between now and Katrina: the Louisiana National Guard is home. During Katrina, the Louisiana National Guard was in Baghdad, Iraq, fighting a war. So that was about 5,000 troops that are here now with all their equipment, and they’re in a better position to help support the people of Louisiana. The local governments, many of them after Katrina, and Rita, ended up with new operating systems. We’ve got people trained on emergency response procedures. What remains the challenge is to be able to make sure the preparations start early enough to evacuate people without rise. I’m very encouraged with what I see [Wednesday] morning: In Lake Charles, the government is providing buses to take people following social distance and not stacking them up in sweaty gyms, but actually bringing them as far as Baton Rouge and putting them in hotels. Family groups can stay together and be COVID-compliant. I think lessons have been learned and COVID has challenged the thinking and the creation of our first responders. We are blessed to have a governor who’s well attuned to what needs to happen, along with his response team.
All the parishes are a lot better now, in planning and preparing. Many of them didn’t even have backup generators during Katrina. So a lot of improvements have been made. I see down in Cameron Parish, they’ve spent the last couple days moving the cows south of the industrial canal. During Hurricane Rita, thousands of cattle died, because they did not move them on the approach of Rita. You see them being very attentive to locking those plants down. People are being more prudent and they’re taking more actions in a timely manner.
Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.