This General Rescued New Orleans—Now He Wants to Save the World
Russel Honoré says pollution is a national security threat
“I don’t call myself an environmentalist, I call myself a pollution fighter” Russel Honoré tells me.
The 67-year-old retired lieutenant general doesn’t fit the stereotype of your typical green activist. Many soldiers called him “The Ragin’ Cajun,” though he is—in fact—a Louisiana Creole.
For nearly four decades he was a career infantry officer, trained in the art of close combat—leading soldiers to kill America’s enemies before they killed them.
But his most notable military assignment was head of the Pentagon’s post-Katrina relief efforts. His mission was to evacuate residents, search for survivors, deliver aid and restore order. Since leaving the service, he’s returned to Louisiana and now lives in Baton Rouge.
Though retired, his soldiering days aren’t over. He’s now the leader of the Green Army, a coalition of Gulf Coast residents taking on pollution in their region.
The retired general says pollution isn’t just an ecological problem. It affects Americans’ health and damages the economy.
And that’s a danger to the national security of the United States.
The retired general’s military career began in 1966, when he enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as a college student. The Vietnam War was ongoing, and the draft was still in effect. He commissioned in 1971 as an infantry officer.
Honoré deployed twice to the Korean peninsula, once as the commander of the 2nd Infantry Division staring down the North Koreans at the DMZ. He was later the assistant head of the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning and commander of the First Army.
Before his promotion to lieutenant general, Honoré met with Donald Rumsfeld, then the U.S. secretary of defense. Rumsfeld called attention to the general’s age. As one of the few remaining officers to start his career in the Vietnam era, he was older than many of his peers.
But Honoré pointed out that Gen. Douglas MacArthur was 72 years old when he landed at Inchon. Rumsfeld slammed his hand down on his desk.
“You know what? I’m 72,” the secretary said before promoting Honoré, giving him his third star.
But his greatest challenge was responding to a national tragedy in his native Louisiana.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was one of the worst natural disasters in American history. Panic ensued when New Orleans’ flood levees—built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—broke and the city began to flood.
The Louisiana National Guard mobilized and FEMA scrambled to respond. But nearly everyone was woefully ill-prepared for a disaster of this size.
Authorities urged residents who weren’t able to flee to shelter inside the Superdome—the city’s large football stadium. As many as 15,000 people crowded into the structure, leading to squalid conditions.
Outside, streets flooded and people were trapped inside their homes. Bodies drifted in the flood waters. Hundreds died from disease. The media reported widespread looting as residents abandoned the city. Many people looted grocery stores just to get food.
The nation watched as Fox News reporters Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera got into an epic shouting match with pundits Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes on live TV.
As Smith and Rivera described—and showed—starvation, chaos and death on the ground, Hannity suggested they were blowing it out of proportion and called for “some perspective.”
“This is perspective” Smith angrily replied. “This is all the perspective you need!”
FEMA was overwhelmed, and local authorities were spread thin. Residents—and the nation—asked why there were so many people trapped in the city, why aid wasn’t arriving and who exactly was in charge.
“I knew there were flood waters between me and New Orleans,” Honoré recalled.
The Bush administration was under extreme pressure to come up with a solution. The Pentagon tapped the general to lead Joint Task Force Katrina—made up of military and civilian authorities—to clean up the mess.
Honoré saw pictures of the devastation on the news. His superiors briefed him on the enormity of his task. He set out to witness the devastation on an early September morning. But knowing what was happening and seeing it were different.
As he flew over Mississippi in a helicopter, the magnitude of the disaster began to set in. It got worse as the aircraft made its way into his home state of Louisiana. He looked down at New Orleans—one of America’s great cities—and saw it under water.
“I’ll always remember it,” he recalled. “There was about waist-deep water outside the Superdome that I could see from the helicopter.”
Honoré was in disbelief. “I saw my people—Americans—in need,” he recalled. “It was heartbreaking.”
He had a lot of work to do. Joint Task Force Katrina immediately set to work evacuating the Superdome, hauling supplies and looking for more survivors.
First they had to clear out the airport and get it open again, so people and supplies could arrive. Then they had to push into the city. “It’s all about logistics” he says.
‘That John Wayne dude’
New Orleans is one of North America’s oldest cities. With its historic architecture and winding labyrinth of streets, the city posed unique challenges for Honoré and his troops.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, the city’s entire communication grid was down—its infrastructure decimated.
“[First] you get everyone you can see,” he recounts. Helicopters rescued desperate people stranded on rooftops, and they evacuated people stranded on highways. After that, search and rescue teams had to comb through the city to find anyone else.
“Every building needs to be searched twice,” he said.
Sometimes, the teams discovered corpses. The bodies had to be identified and returned to families whenever possible. “Remains had to be moved and dealt with in a dignified way,” he explained.
In all, at least 1,833 Americans died in the hurricane and subsequent flooding.
The retired general said that the people of the Gulf Coast frequently expressed frustration with the slow pace of operations. They struggled to understand how the U.S. government, who had launched the Berlin Airlift, dealt with natural disasters and famines abroad for decades and sent astronauts to the moon could be so slow to restore order and services on American streets.
“Our people have big expectations,” Honoré says. “And they should.”
In many cases, the government’s response didn’t meet those expectations. Hundreds of New Orleans police officers abandoned the city. Residents accused some officers of participating in looting. Relief often arrived late, if ever. FEMA Director Mike Brown resigned shortly after the hurricane following harsh criticism of his performance.
During a televised relief fundraiser Kanye West infamously declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” And last year, a court convicted former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin of bribery and corruption.
But few have criticized Honoré. In fact, he’s one of the few figures to receive widespread praise from Gulf residents and relief officials alike.
The general’s plain-speaking, cigar-chomping demeanor—as well as his ability to back up promises with results at a time when trust was at an all-time low—made him an unlikely celebrity. Nagin called him “that John Wayne dude.”
Since retiring in January 2008, Honoré has written two books on leadership and emergency preparation. His experiences in Katrina left a huge impression, and he today works to promote “a culture of preparedness.”
He says he wants people to think about—and prepare—for calamities, whether arising from natural or human causes.
Threats to the coast
“It wasn’t by accident that our great cities ended up by water,” Honoré said.
People live by rivers and the oceans for the opportunities they provide. Shipping and trade are the fundamental buildings blocks of cities and economies. But on a more basic level, water sustains life. We drink water to live, use it to grow crops and eat the fish that swim in it.
Since Katrina, the vulnerability of coastal cities and the intensity of weather patterns have been major sources of debate among political leaders. In 2012, the destruction Hurricane Sandy wreaked on New York and New Jersey — though modest compared to Katrina—shocked the nation.
Sandy killed 159 people and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. It hit in the midst of a bitter debate over climate change, and what many see as increasingly destructive storms.
“There are two things happening here,” the retired general says.
In part, the storms are more destructive because of population growth. There’s simply more people living in the paths of hurricanes. He mentions that had the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane—which killed 400 to 600 people, largely laborers—hit in modern times, it would hit an area that’s now far more densely populated.
Hurricanes are made potentially worse by rising sea levels. Honoré said one’s belief—or disbelief—in rising temperatures and melting ice caps do little to diminish the threat.
“The science and the facts show we have rising sea levels,” Honoré adds. “You can take the ‘why’ out of it, but we still have to deal with it.”
Louisiana is home to one of the world’s largest wetlands. Over the years, a mix of storms and pollution have ravaged Louisiana’s waterways that play a critical role in the state’s fragile ecosystem and economy.
Forty percent of America’s seafood comes from the Gulf of Mexico, and 45 percent of America’s exports travel through the Mississippi River.
But rising sea levels threaten the wetlands as salt water enters the bayous. This is a problem because the swamps traditionally serve as a natural barrier against hurricanes—making them lose intensity as they blow through.
He adds that energy exploration and hydraulic fracking damages the wetlands and canals, increasing the rate of their destruction as oil and toxic chemicals enter the waterways.
As if to cruelly demonstrate the point, just five years after Katrina, the Gulf Coast suffered one of history’s worst man-made disasters. After an explosion on the BP-operated oil rig Deepwater Horizon—which killed 11 workers—crude gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days.
The spill caused mass ecological and economic damage. It disrupted commercial shrimping and fishing operations that thousands of people depend on to make their living.
Rear Adm. Meredith Austin—the Coast Guard deputy incident commander during the spill—testified in federal court on Jan. 20 that the response effort was rivaled in complexity only by post-9/11 and Hurricane Katrina clean up efforts.
The admiral testified that the government and BP had to invest “unprecedented” resources to contain the mess.
On the ground
But it was the 2012 Bayou Corne incident that prompted the retired general’s war on pollution. The small rural community in southern Louisiana sits on top of a giant underground sinkhole.
Energy company Texas Brine created the sinkhole when it drilled into an underground salt dome. After extracting resources from the cavern, the company used it for natural gas storage.
But at some point, the dome collapsed.
In June 2012, the U.S. Geological Survey detected seismic anomalies around Bayou Corne. The ground was shaking and there were strange bubbles in the water. Local officials suspected a gas leak, but experts found no evidence.
As incidents increased in July, Texas Brine took the official position that it was unlikely its operations had anything to do with it. But residents reported smelling the aroma of crude oil around town. On Aug. 3, Governor Bobby Jindal ordered the town evacuated.
Texas Brine drilled a relief well and found that the dome had indeed collapsed, and that gas and oil was leaking into the Bayou. The company made a toxic sinkhole.
Honoré said he got involved in the Bayou Corne affair because people asked him to. His experiences during Katrina lent him a certain credibility.
“The government wasn’t telling them anything and the company was treating them with no respect,” he said.
In his the course of his advocacy, he’s become increasingly disturbed by what’s been happening in the state.
He tells the story of Mossville, Louisiana—a poor, predominantly black town surrounded by 14 chemical plants. Diseases like cancer and asthma are much more common there than other parts of the country. And chillingly, the once-rural town that depended on agriculture, fishing and hunting has no birds.
But Honoré says many people there don’t have the money to move someplace healthier. He added that the poor and people of color are the ones who suffer most from pollution.
“What I’ve come to discover is that our democracy has been hijacked,” the retired general says.
He said that members of both parties are in the pockets of big energy companies. The corporations make generous campaign contributions and ensure state officials legislate and vote in the companies’ interests. “They have no right to destroy our air.”
Honoré said to fight back, he needed to assemble an army. The result was the Green Army. “It’s not a conventional Army,” the old general says cracking a grin. “It’s a guerrilla army.”
The Green Army is a umbrella group for local and national organizations. Its members include the Sierra Club, the Alliance for Affordable Energy, and a mash-up of various other environmental, faith-based and health organizations.
They don’t have an address. But they do have a Website, and they promote their efforts on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.
The soldiers of the Green Army are a far cry from the ones Honoré led in the Army. They run from concerned citizens and business owners to rabble-rousing hippies and student activists.
“All people in the U.S. and around the world have a human right to clean water and clean air,” Honoré says. “Nobody has the right to take that away.”
For the general, that’s the issue driving the debate. Honoré said it’s not just CEOs who profit off energy. Many working people depend on the industry to feed their families.
When speaking to communities, he often removes politically-loaded phrases like “environmentalism” and “climate change,” and talks to them simply about how pollution has impacted their lives. He says they’re usually more than happy to talk about that.
“[Everyday] we have less clean water and clean air than we did yesterday,” he says. “I tell people that to scare the shit out of them.”
The consequences stretch far beyond the wetlands. There are global repercussions. “The next wars won’t be fought over oil,” he tells me. “They’ll be over water.”
In many ways they’ve already begun. Droughts, water and food shortages play central roles in ongoing instability and conflicts around the world.
In Egypt, pollution in the Nile River, coupled with droughts, has made irrigation difficult and driven up food prices significantly. In 2008, angry Egyptians protested the food prices, particularly the high cost of bread.
Dissatisfaction with political corruption, economic stagnation and high food costs all contributed to the 2011 overthrow of Pres. Hosni Mubarak. These issues haven’t gone away. Food insecurity and a shortage of clean drinking water fuel growing dissatisfaction in the developing world.
In Syria, half the country suffered the worst drought on record in the years leading to up to the revolution against Pres. Bashar Al Assad. Livestock died en masse while crops dried and withered.
Access to water became a source for friction as Assad gave out water rights to political allies, forcing many farmers to drill illegal wells. The drought was still going on as Assad’s troops fired the first shots of their civil war.
Water scarcity is also at the heart of the nightmare in Darfur, as Arab nomads and ethnic African Darfuri tribes fight over water wells. The Sudanese government’s solution was a genocide that’s killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions.
As the world’s growing population of seven billion tries to feed its hunger and quench its thirst, people will flock wherever there’s food and water.
“When people start to move, they start to bump shoulders” Honoré says.
Scarcity doesn’t necessarily cause tribal and ethnic feuds, but it can certainly make them worse—and increasingly violent—as people compete for a dwindling pile of resources. The haves battle against the have-nots.
“We’re all destroying the planet,” Honoré said. “Me included.”
We like to leave the lights on at night, and use plastic bags instead of reusable ones. We don’t bother to recycle. “We’ve got to move fast and get populations working together,” he warns.
He thinks the key is to find new, clean and sustainable forms of energy and agriculture, as well as living more responsibly. “I think we can create a new economy,” Honoré says.
It’s a tall order, fighting pollution and fundamentally rethinking how we run our economy. And we still haven’t found a solid alternative to fossil fuels.
“Everyone tells me it’s impossible. Which drives me,” the old soldier says. “There’s opportunity on the other side of impossible.”