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A native son takes charge in Gulf Coast

Bluff General invigorates hurricane relief effort.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 2005



CAMP SHELBY, MISS.

He's known for his searing one-liners; a relentless schedule that allows only two hours of sleep a night; and a growly, commanding presence. He's also in charge of the military's response to hurricane Katrina. If that superstorm now rivals the 9/11 terror attacks on the scale of national disasters, then First Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré has emerged as the Rudy Giuliani of the Gulf Coast.

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A rough-talking Louisiana native, he is credited with changing the character of the relief effort from a mad scramble to an increasingly orderly and effective rescue and restoration. But General Honoré is also having to navigate a fine line between necessary leadership and the specter of federal troops using force against American citizens. So far, he appears to have succeeded.

"This is a particularly urgent situation and it looks like the military is the only thing that's functioned in this entire mess," says Michael Greve, an expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "Once they arrived, things turned around."

In fact, a SurveyUSA poll of 1,200 Americans this week voted General Honoré as the most effective leader of the relief operation, ahead of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and, at the bottom of the list, Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Running on a couple of hours' sleep a night, Honoré brings an unbridled passion to his job, challenging subordinates to keep up, his aides say. "The name fits: If he's not Honoré, he's ornery," says one volunteer.

"He's less a man than a force of nature," says his battle captain, Maj. John Rogers. "He knows the way and that's why he's leading. If you wonder whether God has a role in this relief effort, General Honoré is proof: He's the right man for the job."

The general himself talks of Katrina - which caused potentially thousands of fatalities, displaced an estimated 1 million people, and wrecked at least 140,000 homes - as an enemy. "It was a classic military attack," he says here at Camp Shelby, the US Northern Command forward headquarters in the Katrina effort. "He destroyed communications and moved barges across roads. He created shock and paralysis."

Currently, the Department of Homeland Security, through FEMA, is running the operation, and the Army gets its orders from DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. But it's the Humvees, five-ton trucks, and the spirit of the leader that are changing attitudes on the ground, and are largely responsible for bringing a sliver of hope to the shell-shocked victims of Katrina - and bolstering weary relief workers. Willing to get into even the dirtiest task, the general has, by force of personality, changed the pace of the operation as he zips by helicopter from New Orleans to Biloxi, from Gulfport to the canteen of the USS Iwo Jima tied up to the New Orleans docks. His energy is infectious. "There's hope in his message," says Lt. Col. John Cornelio.

As head of the First Army, the job fell to him. Before heading up First Army, the 34-year infantryman had done everything from commanding troops in Korea to developing readiness plans for improvised explosive devices in Iraq. The fact that he's a black Cajun, one of 11 children from Lakeland, La., hasn't hurt his efforts in dealing with the large numbers of blacks along the Gulf Coast. His daughter, out of town during the storm, and extended family live in and around New Orleans.

The general has become the man everybody wants to talk to, from Ted Koppel to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. On Thursday morning, Sen. Trent Lott managed to secure a piece of his time for a quick debrief. But his aides say Honoré isn't immune to exhaustion, and they spend much of their time protecting him. "He can snap in a minute," one aide explained.

A man of a thousand one-liners, Honoré has told soldiers to keep their guns down: "This isn't Iraq." Aides-de-camp says he knows how to cut through the thickets of famously murky Louisiana politics. At a recent staff meeting here at Camp Shelby, he growled, "We're not stuck on stupid." It became the saying of the day, written on a bulletin board.

Sometimes the comments sting, and more than one National Guardsman - especially the men who weathered the storm with the masses in the chaotic Superdome - has bristled at his commands and wondered about the source of his authority. But most soldiers - and, in turn, the vast numbers of volunteers and rescuers - seem invigorated by his drive.

"Soldiers like to see leaders who are more 'Do as I do' than 'Do as I say,' " says Staff Sgt. Sharon McBride, who is bivouacked at Camp Shelby. "During a time like this, everybody is looking for someone who has that authority."

Still, some experts say the potential for a backlash against troops can happen if the demands of the natural disaster recede and restlessness or lawlessness rise.

The presence of an active-duty three-star general overseeing 18,000 troops inside the United States in a pocket of scattered unrest is a test of posse comitatus, or "power of the county." Congress enacted the idea after the Civil War at the behest of Southern senators to end the occupation of the South by the US Army.

"There are things that can happen that would become a real ugly picture," says Craig Trebilcock, a York, Pa., lawyer and judge advocate general in the Army Reserve. "It's a real tightrope act."

So far, Honoré has walked it, declining this week to forcibly remove the 10,000 people still in New Orleans. "That is not something for federal troops," he says. "We're doing what we can today and tomorrow to help people and save lives."

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