‘Don’t Ever Tell Law Enforcement to Shoot to Kill Your Own People’

A dispatch from the brink of catastrophe

Erik Winkowski

As outrage in response to police killings grows across the country, President Donald Trump has suggested that active-duty military forces are “ready, willing and able” to deploy to Minnesota. Governor Tim Walz activated the state’s National Guard to enforce curfews and quell what he called the “wanton destruction” by the protesters. At least 25 cities across 16 states have imposed curfews as widespread protests continue.

This tense moment calls to mind another. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, survivors searched for food and supplies, and tried to make it out of the flooded city. The national media fixated on scenes of “looting” and repeated rumors of “snipers,” describing New Orleans as a “city under siege.” President George W. Bush considered invoking the Insurrection Act, which gives the president the power to deploy military troops within the United States.

In The Atlantic’s podcast Floodlines, host Vann R. Newkirk II tells this story. He says of this moment in 2005: “We were pretty dangerously close to a situation where armed-forces units would shoot civilians for the first time since the Kent State massacre.” But that didn’t happen. Lieutenant General Russel L. Honoré was commander of Joint Task Force Katrina. He saw what the media and other officials could not: that New Orleans was in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, not a war. His efforts to de-escalate the situation may have prevented further tragedy.

This week, the events of 2005 continue to offer lessons for how to move forward. What follows is an excerpt of Newkirk II’s interview with Honoré, now retired and living in Baton Rouge. This is a condensed and lightly edited version of their conversation.

Vann R. Newkirk II: How would you describe yourself and career in relation to Hurricane Katrina?

Russell L. Honoré: Well, Katrina, as you know, came in 2005. At the time, I was in my 35th year of service. I was a lieutenant general with headquarters in Atlanta, with a mission to be prepared to provide military support to civil authorities in the event of a Katrina or any other type of major catastrophe in the country.

Newkirk II: You have a career full of lessons that definitely inform what you provided to the region during and after Katrina.

Honoré: When you have a disaster, you lose control. People die. Infrastructure gets broken. My ancestors learned to live with that, because they had multiple experiences of hurricanes and storms and flooding. As well as they survived the great influenza. A lot of people died in the turn of the century from the fever, the yellow fever. Lot of plague came through here. They had lived through this. The unexplainable. Any given day, Mother Nature can break anything built by man. If you live near the water, be prepared to get flooded. Uncontrollable.

Newkirk II: When did you first get to New Orleans after the hurricane?

Honoré: Wednesday morning [two days after landfall]. It was an experience. I went down in a Navy helicopter. I said, “We need to get to this Superdome. Send me a helicopter.” So I took off and landed at the Superdome. I’ll never forget it, because in the Navy, younger officers fly the helicopters. I’m scared as shit, but they’re well trained, and we do a whip around the Superdome. And I’ve never come in on such a fast landing. This was the urgency of the mission. They knew they had to get me down there.

Newkirk II: Did you see the extent of the flooding from the air?

Honoré: Oh yeah. I saw rooftops. And you’ve seen those pictures of Katrina with the people standing outside. There was the shot. That’s the picture I saw. All of ’em standing around the Superdome. So [then-FEMA director] Michael Brown found out I was there; he sent word for me to come over to see him [back in Baton Rouge]. So I went over to his headquarters. I walked in, and he said, “This is your desk right next to me.” I said, “Sir, you will never see me sit in that fucking desk.” He said, “No, I need you right next to me so we coordinate this.” I said, “Yeah, but the people are in the water in New Orleans. I’m headed back to New Orleans. I need to be in New Orleans next to the mayor, who don’t have communications. And we got to evacuate the people. The governor said the No. 1 priority is evacuation. And that’s what I’m going back to New Orleans to do.”

Newkirk II: Was this just a misunderstanding, or was it indicative of FEMA just not necessarily having an understanding of what was happening?

Honoré: I think it’s a combination of the above. So I gotta position myself where I could do my command and control. And get my mission done. There was a lot we didn’t know.

Newkirk II: Do you feel like a lot of your job was, like, counteracting both rumors and media reports?

Honoré: I get a call [one night]. It’s right before dark. The police chief had gone on television and said there were snipers. The White House chief of staff calls my phone number, says, “Hey, the boss wants to know are there snipers in New Orleans, because if snipers are there, we gonna send federal troops in tonight. We’ve got a brigade of the 82nd ready to go. Special Ops troops.”

I said, “You gotta be shitting me.” On the way over, I see that the governor is telling them, “Hey, we come into the Superdome and convention center. We’re gonna get everybody out, and we want to shoot to kill if we see anybody looting.” Where did this come from? So I call back down to the governor’s office. I said, “Hey, tell the governor don’t tell the troops to shoot to kill.” ’Cause these are National Guard troops, not federal troops yet. “Don’t ever tell law enforcement to shoot to kill your own people.” Why are we putting this message out there? And then on top of that, the police chief is saying he went up in a helicopter and a sniper shot him.

So I go see the police chief. Because the message from the White House was: I need you to go verify this. I said, “Chief [Eddie] Compass, where did you get this idea there were snipers? That’s a significant word, to say ‘snipers.’” I say, “Oh, by the way, did they hit you?” “Well, no.” “Did they hit the helicopter?” “No.” “Well, they probably weren’t fucking snipers, were they?” Chief says, “Maybe I used the wrong word.” I said, “No shit, you used the wrong word.” We’re going to snipers, now we’re going to a case of civil unrest. And the president can assume control of all of this area now, because we’ve lost civil control. It’s not Posse Comitatus; it’s the Insurrection Act. The police chief says, “Well, yeah, maybe that was a bad word.” I said, “No fuck, chief. That was a bad word.”

Newkirk II: So it seems like one of the things you were really focused on doing was making sure that keeping the idea that the mission, this was humanitarian.

Honoré: Right. And that’s the next day, when we got the call to put the guns down. That happened on the following morning. Because, you see, this thing had been building about looting and about “The city’s out of control.” You got a bunch of reporters still pissing New York beer just showing up; they ain’t corroborating shit. Then somebody goes straight to national television.

Newkirk II: Can you just walk me through the actual order of events of the evacuation? The last phase of the evacuation from the convention center and Superdome.

Honoré: The evacuation started Wednesday at the Superdome and then the convention center. Then we had people out on the highway and bridges. And the buses started to come in. And started to move people to Houston first and then other cities in Texas. By Saturday, we had the airport open. And we had buses come in, go right to the convention center, one block away. The National Guard ran that operation. Walked people to the buses, took them to the New Orleans airport, and flew them out. We had to get the airport organized to be able to do that. And in six hours, we were done moving, like, 16,000 people from the convention center.

Newkirk II: It’s all logistics.

Honoré: The way we say in the Army: It takes a little time to do difficult shit. It takes a little longer to do fucking impossible. But we gon’ do this. We did D-Day. That’s the heritage I come from. We did Iwo Jima. You hear me? We did Hamburger Hill. This is the fucking Army. You with me? It takes a little longer to do impossible; we gon’ do this. Nobody’s shooting at us. I mean, it’s a function of overcoming time and space and difficulty of doing that. But we got this.

Newkirk II: What do you think we’ve learned from Katrina, or what haven’t we learned?

Honoré: I think the biggest lesson we have not learned is that we could have a Katrina in Miami. Large concentration of people. New Orleans is negative six feet. Miami is nine feet. Can happen to Fort Lauderdale. Can happen in Tampa. And I don’t think we have done enough to prepare our people that we could have another Katrina in Houston. You saw what happened a few years ago when we had 50 inches of rain, that our coastal communities are very vulnerable. We could have a Katrina hit New York. I think there is strength that grows from an experience of—I’m trying to find the right word—it’s like the concept “The only difference between charcoal and diamond is heat and pressure.” If you survive adversity, it makes you stronger.

Newkirk II: So do you believe this, that all of these things in your life made you a diamond?

Honoré: I think it gave me an appreciation that, wherever you are, and you’re in that position of power, there are people out there who are struggling. And don’t see the world the same way as you do. It’s very easy when you become a three-star general to lose the perspective on what’s important to the private. And you can’t win a war without the private. But you can win the war without the three-star general. You with me?

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