To some, Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré was the “Category 5 General.” To former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Honoré was a “Black John Wayne.”
“He came off the doggone chopper, and he started cussing and people started moving,” Nagin said of Honoré, who was sent to New Orleans to evacuate the Superdome and command the Joint Katrina Task Force in the days following Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago this week.
Honoré, who also led the Joint Task Force following Hurricane Rita a mere month later in September 2005, is retired now. But he joined Here & Now’s Tonya Mosley from his landline in Baton Rouge Thursday morning to reflect both on Hurricane Katrina as well as Hurricane Laura, which made landfall the previous night in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Honoré says the parishes where Laura struck in southwest Louisiana are “hurting.” And as the storm makes its way into the northern part of the state, “the news will get worse before it gets better,” because many of the towns to the north are older and have many mobile homes, according to Honoré, a native of Lakeland, Louisiana.
While the Gulf Region is used to hurricanes, Honoré describes Laura as “atypical,” largely because the disaster is compounded by the “COVID-19 environment.”
“Calcasieu Parish,” where Lake Charles is located, “is one of the hottest places in the state when you look at areas that have a high percentage of people that have the virus,” Honoré explains.
“And now we’ve displaced them to hotel rooms throughout the state … and now their homes — many of them — are destroyed,” he says. Honoré estimates 20,000 to 25,000 homes have been destroyed in Lake Charles, a city with a population of about 70,000. And that’s just a low-ball estimate, he says.
What scares him about that, he says, is that three years after Hurricane Maria, the Federal Emergency Management Agency “has not rebuilt the houses in Puerto Rico yet.”
For Hurricane Laura, Honoré emphasizes, “we can’t have a normal, FEMA, drag-ass response.”
This is why people love the “Category 5 General” across the state — he doesn’t mince words. This was especially true in the aftermath of Katrina.
According to the lore, Honoré’s first command upon taking control of the Katrina Joint Task Force was “Put those damn weapons down!” He was speaking to New Orleans police who seemed to think, Honoré says, that they were in a war rather than a rescue mission.
That perception was quickly confirmed, Honoré later told The Atlantic, when he heard the governor at the time, Kathleen Blanco, giving law enforcement the go-ahead to shoot looters on sight.
Honoré says Blanco was reacting to rumors circulating about possible snipers — rumors he quickly determined were false. But that didn’t stop New Orleans police officers from killing two civilians as they tried to flee the chaos of New Orleans across the Danziger Bridge, a bloody stain on the New Orleans Police Department’s reputation that resulted in it being placed under federal consent decree.
Some have wondered whether the police departments in Minneapolis or Kenosha, Wisconsin, should be placed under similar consent decrees for shooting Black people. Thinking about what happened in Kenosha this week, Honoré reflected: “The future we feared is here.”
“We have people now showing up at protests with long guns,” Honoré says, “who can take it upon themselves as some appointed vigilante that they have the right to shoot people.”
He was referring to Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager from Illinois who allegedly killed two people and injured a third at a protest for Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot and paralyzed by police in Kenosha over the weekend.
To listen to the former general is to realize he has many fears. But the one that looms largest for him is about climate change.
Since retiring, he’s spent much of his time mobilizing what he calls a “Green Army” to fight the pollution caused by the Gulf Coast’s petrochemical plants, one of which was on fire Thursday afternoon.
Not only does this pollution cause cancer and reduce life expectancy, he says, but it also warms the Gulf waters, making the hurricanes worse each year. Honoré has one message for Americans as they think about both Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Katrina on this anniversary.
“Don’t vote for anyone who don’t believe in climate change,” he says. “We got that? Don’t vote for them.”
This segment aired on August 27, 2020.