Tuesday, September 6, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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His mission: Get it done, and fast

Newhouse News Service

NEW ORLEANS — Well before dawn, he fires up his first Dutch Masters of the day and, with his huge frame folded into the back seat of a command truck, begins barking orders and gusts of cigar smoke.

"That is your mission!" he thunders into a satellite phone, in a voice that could peel paint.

"I am the joint-task-force commander and you are an asset. Now get the [bleep] moving!"

The enormous task of coordinating the U.S. military forces finally flowing into Hurricane Katrina's disaster areas has fallen to this man, Russel Honore, a 6-foot-2-inch African-American infantry officer who wears the three stars of a lieutenant general, the authority of the commander of all active-duty forces assigned to Katrina relief (Joint Task Force Katrina), and the demeanor of a man in a hurry.

Blocked by a military convoy stalled in 4 feet of water outside the Superdome, he leans out and bellows at a young enlisted driver: "Hey! Back up! Give us some room!" The driver complies and Honore sails through with a dazzling grin and a thumbs-up.

Hours later, striding across the airport tarmac to greet the commanding general of the incoming 82nd Airborne Division, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, he yells out delightedly, "Hey, Bill!"

"It comes down to relationships," he said, speaking of his impatience and his seeming ability to coax the best out of soldiers and commanders with a soft word and a grinning pat on the back.

"You gotta build trust. You build trust, you got speed. And you need speed in a crisis."

Soldiers pouring in

Speed and relationships will be critical in the days ahead as some 7,000 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne and 1st Cavalry Divisions begin pouring in to join Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps units already at work in Louisiana and along the coasts of Alabama and Mississippi.

Merely to get them here is a job, given that roads and airports are jammed with incoming cargo, and the troops must be sustained with food, water, communications facilities and medical care.

And their work must be coordinated with National Guard units and the dozens of other local, state and federal agencies at work. These include U.S. Border Patrol agents and Air Force security police in combat gear and federal and state civilian disaster workers from around the country.

On the air side alone, Army, National Guard, Navy, Marine and Coast Guard helicopters are swarming into a makeshift logistics base at the Superdome delivering boots, water and communications gear and evacuating sick and elderly refugees.

Honore is the commanding general of 1st Army, a headquarters based in Atlanta that oversees the mobilization and training of National Guard and reserve troops for Iraq. He has come to know hundreds of National Guard officers and commanders.

First Army's secondary mission is to coordinate military support to civilian authorities in a crisis, and it is in that capacity that Honore plunged into work on Katrina days before the storm hit last week.

He has a personal interest as well: His grown daughter was among the tens of thousands evacuated from New Orleans, and his son is serving in Iraq with a brigade of the Louisiana National Guard.

"So we feel the pain," Honore said.

And a sense of urgency. Over the weekend — during a long and hurried span that aides wearily described as typical — Honore rose at 4 a.m. Saturday and got back to bed at 2 a.m. Sunday for his typical two hours of sleep. His main sustenance seemed to be his ever-present cigars.

Setting the mission

In a hurried conference with Caldwell, whose 82nd Airborne troopers were alerted only Friday for hurricane duty and began arriving late Saturday, Honore worked out a brief mission order: search and rescue in sectors of New Orleans and assist as needed in humanitarian relief. That means paratroopers will go door to door in flooded neighborhoods.

As the paratroopers and cavalry units move into the city, the potential for misunderstandings and miscommunications with local law-enforcement officers seems high. It is a problem Honore is racing to head off in a stream of personal meetings and phone calls with the Pentagon and its domestic military headquarters, U.S. Northern Command, and with dozens of other military headquarters, mayors, police officials and National Guard officers.

That kind of command-by-schmoozing is dictated by the sensitive position Honore occupies here. The active-duty military, even though it has the most resources, takes a back seat to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local offices.

"We are assisting; we keep that line very clear," Honore said. "That is to protect the sovereignty of the states and that goes back to the Constitution."

But it means he's got an enormous amount to do, and — because people are dying — each second counts.

"You guys are working off a calendar," he tells his staff. "I'm looking at my watch."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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