General Honoré, Katrina and the Army behind him, retains civic aims

Retired Friday from the Army, he wants to help the public attain a 'culture of preparedness' like that of the cold-war era.

John Amis/AP
After the storm: Honoré is known as the 'John Wayne dude' who shook New Orleans out of its daze after hurricane Katrina.

As commander of the First Army, Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré spent years preparing for a worst-case disaster that could befall his territory east of the Mississippi. When it came ashore on Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane Katrina exceeded his grimmest expectations.

Known as the gruff, cigar-munching "John Wayne dude" who shook New Orleans out of its daze after the flood, General Honoré retired Friday from a 37-year Army career in a ceremony at Ft. Gillem, just outside Atlanta.

In a Monitor interview, Honoré said he doesn't want his turning-point performance after the storm to be his only legacy. He hopes to make a mark, too, with what's next: an effort to guide civilian America, especially young people, back to the kind of "culture of preparedness" that was part of his own cold-war upbringing.

The greatest and largely unlearned lesson of Katrina, Honoré says, is that despite investments and improvements in federal and state disaster response, civic response remains weak.

"I'm sure you and your wife have a plan to meet at Uncle Joe's house, but does your plan include asking Mrs. Smith next door if she needs a ride?" he says. "We saw a lot of Mrs. Smiths in New Orleans."

Honoré will move to Atlanta's Emory University, where his immediate task will be to build a disaster-relief curriculum for use at colleges. He's also writing a book that he hopes to publish before next hurricane season. He hasn't ruled out entering politics, either, possibly in Louisiana.

Earlier this month, Honoré met with Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) to discuss a gambit that would include adding lifesaving and disaster preparedness to Peach State school curricula.

"To be able to save someone's life, to keep [the injured] alive until they can be rescued, that needs to be put back into our culture," Honoré says.

The general is right, says Patrick Green, a French Quarter street sweeper who spent four days in the Super Dome before being evacuated. "No one was prepared," says Mr. Green. "It was shameful."

Honoré is also urging that drugstores and grocery stores be required to keep generators on hand so they can keep operating after a disaster.

Honore's plans to buck up the civilian corps are commendable, says former Sen. Gary Hart, author of "The Shield and the Cloak: The Security of the Commons." But Mr. Hart disagrees that the focus of disaster relief needs to shift away from the responsibility of government.

"We still haven't done enough on ports, emergency response, and not just border security south, but north," says Hart. "The caliber and quality are still lacking."

Meantime, Honoré's growl and visage are stamped on the consciousness of New Orleans. His "can-do" attitude and one-liners like "Don't get stuck on stupid" earned him local plaudits, says Chad Rogers, who runs The Dead Pelican political website in Baton Rouge. La. "He was the commanding presence we all needed."

New Orleans artist Greg Giegucz and his roommates named a beagle puppy "Honoré." "He's a national treasure," says Mr. Giegucz of the retired general. "I wish he'd come back and run for mayor."

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