Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore was the “John Wayne dude” who led the U.S. military’s disaster-relief effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina one year ago.

Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore was the “John Wayne dude” who led the U.S. military’s disaster-relief effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina one year ago. (File photo)

ARLINGTON, Va. — For the Pentagon, the initial concerns regarding Katrina revolved around the damage the storm caused to U.S. military bases, especially Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., where half the base was underwater.

But on Aug. 30, the levees of New Orleans gave way.

Thousands of the city’s citizens who had been too poor, too old, too sick, or too mule-stubborn to evacuate, began to drown.

In the Superdome, 20,000 of these residents were running out of food, water and patience. There was no power, and the rising water prevented any escape. Horrifying images began to appear on TV, showing blanket-covered bodies abandoned in wheelchairs, and crowds that appeared dangerously close to rioting.

Caught in the glare of television cameras, the federal government’s civilian leaders appeared stunned by the developments. Disbelieving. Disconnected.

And worst of all, paralyzed.

That’s when the U.S. military jumped in.

Bringing more than 350 helicopters, 20 ships, thousands of vehicles, and years of experience in crisis management, 71,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines responded to what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called "the greatest disaster-recovery effort in America’s history.”

The military effort, known as Joint Task Force Katrina, made an instant media star out of its cigar-chewing commander, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, head of the U.S. First Army.

A frustrated Mayor Ray Nagin captured the moment in an interview with CNN:

“Now, I will tell you this,” Nagin said “and I give the president some credit on this — he sent one John Wayne dude down here that can get some stuff done, and his name is Gen. Honore.

“And he came off the doggone chopper, and he started cussing and people started moving. And he’s getting some stuff done!”

Across the Gulf Coast, servicemembers stepped in wherever civilian agencies were overwhelmed.

In just a few days, Task Force Katrina members saved thousands of lives.

On Sept. 7, 2005, the Air Force announced that its helicopter crews had rescued more than 4,900 people stranded by floodwaters in New Orleans — and that’s just one service, in one stricken area. The Army, Coast Guard and Navy all had helicopter crews performing similar rescues.

With the exception of civilian law enforcement, which active-duty military personnel are not allowed to perform under federal law, task force members were engaged in all aspects of the response to Katrina: search and rescue; evacuations; airlifting food, water, blankets, clothing, fuel and other supplies; providing medical care; communications; road clearing; fire fighting; airfield support operations; providing security; mortuary affairs; and recovery and reconstruction planning.

Many of the servicemembers who were tapped for the Katrina mission got the call to go down south just as they had finished unpacking their rucksacks from a long deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan.

And when asked how they felt about yet another tasking, many Task Force Katrina participants echoed Army Col. Bryan Roberts, who told Stripes he “wouldn’t miss this for anything.”

“We’re helping our own,” Roberts, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade, told Stripes Sept. 9, 2005. “When we’re over in Iraq, we receive tremendous support” from the American public.

“This is a great opportunity to give back and show our gratitude.”

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