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Ret. Lt. Gen. Honoré, Katrina’s ‘John Wayne,’ reflects on recovery

3rd September 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Harden
Contributing Writer

Spending his Katrina anniversary in the company of the media, retired Lt. Gen Russel L. Honoré said there is significant improvement in Louisiana’s ability to respond to disasters, but that we have to be smarter about recovery.

Honoré, who was called in on Aug 31, 2005 to lead the Joint Task Force, Katrina was known for his no B.S. approach, quickly bringing directive and logic to dysfunction and chaos.

“We need to remind people that we lost much after Katrina, and have the opportunity to gain much,” Honoré said. “But we must not lose the moment – whether that moment is months, years, or decades – we have to become stronger and not weaker.”

Honoré said we need to change the way the city recovered, with many small local businesses still struggling if even surviving, and much of the economic impact having benefited people from other cities and states.

There was so much focus on getting things done quickly, not enough was done to make sure the recovery was sustainable, and sustainable in away that strengthens locals, he said.

After Katrina, the only way to get a contracted job with the government was to have a brand new truck with a sign, a website, and a network of lawyers and engineers, Honoré said. “They outsourced a lot of work to outside agencies and companies.”

For example, Honoré described parish leaders requesting that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers take over debris removal because of limited local personnel. At the expense of taxpayers, Honoré said the cost of removal went from $9 per cubic yard to $18 per cubic yard. And the people profiting the most weren’t actually on the ground removing debris, but were the well-paid middlemen supervisors, he said.

“That’s the side of recovery you don’t hear about,” Honoré said. “They way they did it was not sustainable and meant nothing to the people who lived there.” The local businesses were “victimized by the process,” he said. “The infrastructure was rebuilt but families working in the industry did not necessarily benefit from the economic gains.”

Asked how to prevent the same thing after the next disaster, Honoré said that we need to “take a knee,” and never again do things like the Road Home program. Honoré said the much-maligned program started with good intentions, but ended up generating big profits for the wrong people.

“We have to find another way that is more sustainable, with local companies participating in recovery, and make sure the money is invested in people who do the work locally,” he said.

Another thing that gets Honoré heated – and concerns him deeply in regards to pending disasters in Louisiana – is the allowance of the numerous oil, gas, and chemical companies along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans (a.k.a. “cancer alley”) to self-regulate.

Few of those plants and refineries have berms that will protect them from flooding, he said, and “That bothers the hell out of me in Louisiana.”

Honoré noted the 2010 earthquake and ensuing nuclear disaster in Japan as an example of how a natural disaster can turn into an even more devastating manmade disaster when proper protections are not in place.

When companies are allowed to self-regulate, they often elect to pay fines rather than improve safety, he said.

Honoré said there needs to be more accountability across the board when it comes to being prepared – including the housing developers who build in flood zones and outside the levee system and do not inform homebuyers of the risks.

Build the levees before you build the subdivision, Honoré said. Don’t howl that federal taxpayers need to build you a levee when you “know damn well you put it in a flood zone.”

Louisiana needs to better ingrain a “culture of preparedness” into the culture known for food, music and having a good time, he said. “We spend more time getting ready for football season than we do for hurricane season.”

In Cuba, Honoré said that young students are taught in school to inspect homes in advance of hurricane season. They write papers, put on plays, and go into actual homes where they identify that a tree limb is hanging over a power line, or that a gutter is clogged with leaves.

A culture of preparedness needs to become part of Louisiana’s culture, he said. “$1 spent on preparation saves $12 spent on response,” he said.

Honoré wrote a book on preparedness, is an adjunct professor at a handful of universities, and travels around the world speaking on preparedness, disasters, leadership and recovery.

This article originally published in the September 02, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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