On Monday, Sept. 4th, The Bayou Brief sat down with Gen. Russel Honore, the brash and charismatic Army commander who instantly became a source of pride and a rare example of competence and stability when he took charge of coordinating the federal government’s relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Honore has since retired from the Army, but he still remains one of the most popular people in Louisiana and one of the nation’s leading experts in disaster response.
We wanted to know Gen. Honore’s assessment of the government’s response to Hurricane Harvey, and during a wide-ranging conversation that lasted nearly 45 minutes, he covered a lot of ground.
One thing is for certain: Russel Honore does not mind telling you why he’s totally unimpressed, even if it means boot-stomping all over the self-aggrandizing talking points offered by city, county, and state elected officials on both sides of the political aisle.
For better or worse, Hurricane Katrina will always be the benchmark by which Honore assesses disaster relief response efforts. He was assigned to New Orleans three days after the storm made landfall and two days after former President George W. Bush, in the most tone-deaf moment in his entire two terms, told FEMA Director Michael Brown that he was doing a “heckuva job.” Honore had the unenviable task of restoring order, sanity, confidence, and a chain of command against the backdrop of a systemic breakdown of city, state, and federal institutions. Through the sheer force of his personality and his righteous anger, in less than 36 hours after landing in a helicopter from Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and despite what his official title claimed, Russel Honore did more than any single person in the country to take the lead.
“But (in Mississippi), we had no access to video and did not realize how desperate the situation had become in one of America’s most popular and unique cities,” Honore writes in his book Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save You and Your Family From Disasters. “That came the next morning, when the havoc that Katrina had wrought, and the enormity of the need to do something about it, and to do it quickly, became all too evident. I flew into Downtown New Orleans and was confronted with all of the makings of a third-world disaster in a first-world country.”
Harvey and Katrina are two completely different storms, a fact that Honore points out immediately. Katrina was far more deadly. It flooded 80% of a city that was only 20% occupied. Harvey, on the other hand, flooded 30% of a city that was still almost completely occupied. Honore may be a critic of President Donald Trump (he was also known to criticize former President Barack Obama), but when asked how he would grade the President, he simply said, “The President did his job.”
The problem, according to Honore, occurred on a state and local level in Houston. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott “gets credit for communicating with his people frequently,” but he repeatedly failed to mobilize requisite numbers of the National Guard and request additional federal troops, according to Honore. “It escaped him (Gov. Abbott) that he could have had more federal troops early on,” Honore said.
“In Louisiana, we had 40,000 National Guard active on the ground and 20,000 federal troops. We had twenty ships. We had a floating hospital ship.” Texas, on the other hand, a state with a population more than five times that of Louisiana, claims to have only 30,000 National Guard members activated. When asked for the number of federal troops employed, the Pentagon initially reported more than 6,300, and then issued a correction. The number was actually around 1,600, a mistake they attributed to an accounting error.
There’s a sense that the leaders in Texas weren’t willing to take Harvey too seriously, until it was too late. They had stationed the bulk of their high-water vehicle fleet hours away in San Antonio. They sent mixed messages on evacuation: The Republican governor encouraged voluntary evacuation; Sylvester Turner, the Democratic mayor of Houston, told residents to stay put. In Honore’s opinion, this was a huge mistake. “Houston never realized how vulnerable it was,” he said. “They were oblivious. They never realized the dangers of those two reservoirs, ever.”
It baffles Honore that a dozen years after Houston’s botched evacuation prior to Hurricane Rita, the nation’s fourth largest city has still not developed a cogent and workable evacuation plan. “When you’re in a disaster, you are not in total control; the disaster is in control. You understand?” he asked. “If the disaster was not defeating you, it would not be a disaster; it would be an inconvenience. In a disaster, people’s lives are going to be lost. People’s property is going to be lost. Animals are going to die. Infrastructure is going to be destroyed. A disaster will make you look incompetent and stupid, and it’s worse when you’re surrounded by water. And you don’t have electricity and drinking water.“
Houston, in his opinion, should have issued a phased evacuation order. “They didn’t do the evacuation right in 2005. Here’s how you do it,” he said. “You take out the elderly and the disabled that are in flood zones. Why do we have nursing homes in flood zones? You can go to Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, for example. We evacuated that nursing home there three times, three times, and there are elderly people still living in that nursing home. It’s insane.”
After evacuating the elderly and the disabled, the city “should have been focused on high risk populations and people known to be in the flood zone,” Honore says. “Then, the next group is people who live in communities that normally flood. You do this by zones. Then, the next thing we do is encourage voluntary evacuation from the neighborhoods adjacent to them.”
There are other things that could have been done but weren’t. “Look, the moment you’re under a hurricane warning, you tell everybody, ‘Fill up your car with gas,'” he said. “There are a million cars flooded in Houston. Why? Because the mayor didn’t tell anyone to evacuate. In so doing, he exposed a larger portion of the population, including the most vulnerable population.”
The timing only made things worse.
“Remember, this is happening on the 27th of the month. How much money do poor people have on the 27th of the month?” he asked, rhetorically. “Now, they’ve lost their cars, and poor people don’t have collision coverage on their cars; all they can afford is liability.”
He shared a story about a father of two he had recently met in Houston. “He lived in public housing. He has a job at the airport; he takes care of his family. He said he had just bought the kids clothes for school. He lost that,” Honore said. “And because he was told not to evacuate, he lost his car. Now, he can’t get to work. There’s not a single government program that will pay for that man’s car. None.”
In the years since Katrina, Russel Honore has also emerged as one of Louisiana’s most outspoken environmental justice advocates, leading a non-profit organization known as the Green Army. Storms like Harvey offer reminders of the industry’s role in supercharging disastrous weather events and examples of the ways in which an entire region of the United States is reliant on an industry that is simultaneously the most profitable and most environmentally negligent in the world.
“The damage has been done with the current state of things,” Honore tells me, “because so many plants were built in the wetland. They had to get an exception to the rule to build those plants. Most of Texas, south of Houston, particularly as you approach the shipyards, is actually wetlands. I went by two plants yesterday, where the plants were only ten feet above sea-level and the storm surge was expected to be 12 feet.”
Things will only get worse, Honore predicts, as the current administration turned over regulatory authority to apologists for the industry instead of experts in the science.
“The Texas communities: They’re stupid like Louisiana. They let someone put in a volatile plant in their communities, and they’re only protected by a volunteer fire department. And they give the fire department a truck. Who do you think does the fire inspection of the plant? Where are the lawyers and judges? They’re waiting for something to happen. They’re reactive and not proactive.”
During the last week, Gen. Honore has been criticized for being too critical. Some believe his “Monday morning quarterbacking” is disrespectful. They miss the point entirely.
“We ought not to confuse criticism with thanking our first responders who are putting their lives on the line,” he says. “These aren’t the people who messed things up. The law and our democracy have been hijacked.”