Blunt, colorful and competent, Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré charmed America when he helicoptered into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and hit the ground cussing. Honoré, described as “a John Wayne dude” by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, got the stalled rescue and recovery effort moving in a hurry, cutting through red tape like Moses parting the Red Sea and warning everybody involved not to get “stuck on stupid.”
Now, with excellent help from writer Ron Martz, Honoré has told the Katrina story from his own point of view in “Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save You and Your Family from Disasters,” published by Atria Books Hardcover, a division of Simon and Schuster. Martz is a former long-time writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the author of five other ghosted or as-told-to books.
In “Survival,” Honoré repeatedly urges government agencies, relief organizations and individuals to get ready for natural or man-made disasters before they happen instead of reacting to them after the fact. It isn’t a new message but Honoré’s personal history and dynamic personality make the advice a lot more meaningful and interesting.
Born in 1947 (ironically during a hurricane) and raised on the Mississippi Delta with 11 brothers and sisters, he grew up in a black Creole culture where surviving meant being self-sufficient.
“We were poor but we learned at an early age that we needed to be prepared for the worst nature could give us,” he says in the book. Subsistence farmers like his father raced to harvest whatever crops they could before hurricanes hit. People built their homes on stilts or raised them on concrete blocks to spare them from floods. Whenever friends and relatives gathered, they routinely talked of damage done by past storms and floods and discussed ways they might prepare better in future.
At age 12, Honoré hired out to a neighbor, Grover Chustz, who owned a dairy farm.
During the summer, Honoré and Chustz milked 60-65 cows morning and evening, starting at 4 a.m. During school months, the school bus dropped Honoré off at Chustz’s farm and he worked til after dark. That pattern continued from his last year of elementary school until his junior year of college at Southern University in nearby Baton Rouge. Honoré, the first in his family to go to college, worked at the dairy farm and took other jobs to pay for tuition and books.
The job established a lifelong pattern of hard work that helped him succeed at almost everything he attemped, with one exception, Honoré said. Although he is a dynamic and charismatic speaker, the general admits he has no talent or patience for writing.
He joined the ROTC with no plans to make the Army a career. But after he graduated from college, his ROTC advisor urged him to sign up for the infantry. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army. It was the start of a successful military career that lasted almost four decades. He rose to the rank of 3-star general and the command of the First Army.
Now retired and living in Atlanta with his wife, Beverly, Honoré is in great demand as a speaker all over the United States, according to Martz, who spent four months with the general and recorded 45 hours of interviews. Martz also traveled with Honoré to New Orleans to get a feel for the devastation of the city and the magnitude of the general’s post-Katrina responsibilities.
If Honoré was the right man to manage Joint Task Force-Katrina, Martz was the right man to write the general’s book. A former Marine himself, Martz was the military reporter at the AJC and was embedded with the Army’s Third Infantry Division during the Iraqi invasion. He co-authored a book about the experience with Capt. Jason Conroy titled “Heavy Metal: A Tank Company’s Battle to Baghdad.” Martz was with Capt. Conroy, commander of Charley Company, as its massive M1A1 Abrams tanks led the ground charge into Baghdad. The company was in combat for four straight weeks.
In “Heavy Metal,” Martz and Conroy evaluate the Army’s performance in Iraq, pointing out failures as well as successes and suggesting ways the Army should prepare to fight wars in the future.
In “Survival,” Honoré does the same thing: He evaluates the response to Katrina, talks about failures and successes and outlines ways to improve disaster response.
The majority of the book, which deals with Honoré’s role in the hurricane’s aftermath, is fascinating, in part because it is told from the point of view of a uniquely-placed insider dealing with political infighting, turf wars, incompent people in positions of leadership and those who tried to use the rescue for their own agendas. He also gives a sense of the enormous effort it takes to bring order out of such chaos.
Honoré was stunned by the lack of preparation for Katrina. Buses that might have carried victims from the city were parked before the storm in low-lying areas that flooded. Emergency generators at hospitals and the New Orleans Police Department were housed on ground floors, where they also flooded. (In the book, the general says the police department still keeps its generator on the ground floor.) Wrecked telephone lines and cell phone towers cut off communication between the populace, the rescuers and the outside world. Nobody seemed to realize in advance that the city’s poorest people — who lived in the most flood-prone areas — would be the least able to join the evacuation: Katrina struck at the end of August, just before welfare checks arrived, and many couldn’t even afford gas for their cars or bus fare out of town.
While all of the book is interesting, the first section, where Honoré describes his childhood and the influences that helped make him a great choice to lead the Katrina effort, is the most personable and charming. He recounts seining for crawfish in pits left by workers who built the Mississippi levees. He tells about imaginative family members and friends who taught him to make-do with whatever was available. He recalls how his family depended on friends and neighbors for help through the tough times, just as they gave the same help to others in need.
The book has already gone into its second printing, indicating it is selling well. Reviews have been positive, with one exception: Some readers and reviewers say the title is misleading because it implies a focus on personal and family survival.
One reader commented, on Amazon.com, that the bulk of advice on disaster preparation for individuals and families is given in the list of “Lessons Learned” at the end of each chapter rather than in the text. “The bulk of the book is a biography of the author and an examination of the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina,” the reader wrote, adding, “Does that mean this book is not worth reading? Absolutely not.”
Martz said neither he nor Honoré selected the book’s title, which was chosen by the publisher.
“Our original working title was ‘Stuck on Stupid,’ printed inside the circular international sign with a red slash through it,” Martz said.
About Ron Martz: Martz, who lives in Cumming with his wife, Mary, now teaches a course on writing for the media at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega, a military school. Last year, he helped his journalism class started an online student newspaper called “The Saint,” which comes out every Friday. He is working on a master’s degree in military history, a course he hopes to teach on the college level.
He and Mary Martz, a contract technical writer, offer their freelance writing talents through their business, Just The Write Word.
“Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save You and Your Family from Disasters” is available for sale at http://www.amazon.com/Survival-Culture-Preparedness-Family-Disasters/dp/1416599002
“Heavy Metal: A Tank Company’s Battle to Baghdad” is available for sale at http://www.amazon.com/Heavy-Metal-Companys-Battle-Baghdad/dp/1574888560