HomeNewsA ‘John Wayne Dude’

A ‘John Wayne Dude’

STN EXPO Keynote Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré calls it like he sees it regarding the role of school buses in local, national emergency preparedness.

Long before Hurricane Katrina raked the Gulf Coast on Aug. 31, 2005, before the levees broke, flooding venerable, magical New Orleans and sweeping away hundreds of lives and flooding the memories of thousands of others, the yellow school bus was an everyday part of life for Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré.

It’s hard to believe now, especially when looking upon the retired 33rd commander of the U.S. First Army and his 6-foot, 6-inch frame, but Honoré grew up riding the school bus every day in his hometown of Lakeland, La., northwest of Baton Rouge. His cousin sat behind the wheel, and his father was the substitute driver.

“Whoever was the last guy on the last seat of the bus, he was the guy who would help the bus driver watch if he had to back up, because of the technology at that time,” recalled the man now referred to as the “Hurricane General” for his role in helping speed up relief efforts in New Orleans after Katrina. “There’s no reason we can’t put that back-up thing on buses. I mean, we put them on cars, that technology is being driven now. Ford is putting them in some very economical cars. That way you can see what’s behind you. It doesn’t cost much.”

Honoré is a no-nonsense kind of guy, a man’s man, the reason that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin bestowed upon him the moniker “a John Wayne dude” for his straightforwardness and commanding presence amid the chaos that rocked The Big Easy. He is well-remembered for yelling at National Guard troops to put down their rifles and instead hand out water bottles to dehydrated evacuees who huddled near the Superdome.

But with the notoriety, Honoré is no movie star, no faux action hero. He’s the real deal, a cigar-smoking veteran of tours of Desert Storm in Iraq and South Korea, where he was the commander of all U.S. Army troops. Up until a year ago, he was responsible for preparing all U.S. National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers for their deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

His job, his life, plain and simple, is about safety and security. He’s literally seen it all, and in the case of Hurricane Katrina, how poor planning can beget tragedy.

“The key asset that the school bus brings, it’s a locally-controlled asset that, under the county or parish control is always available in terms of being able to move people on short notice,” he said during a St. Patrick’s Day interview in the New Orleans Marriott, which sits on the western front, so to speak, of the famous French Quarter.

“The biggest thing the buses do is they give an immediate response because they’re a local or a state asset that can be called on if the commercial buses aren’t there on time or they don’t have sufficient capacity,” said Honoré. “So, it’s that response. You know you’ve got them; you’ve got trained drivers, you’ve got a safe asset because they’re used to haul children every day.”

Since his retirement from active duty on Jan. 8, 2008, Honoré has for good reason become a sought-after expert on emergency preparedness. This month, his first book, “Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save You and Your Family from Disasters,” hits books stores. Published by Atria Books and co-authored by Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Ron Martz, “Survival” is not only a memoir that recounts the events around Hurricane Katrina, but a call to action. In only the way he can, Honoré makes the point that the nation as a whole still has a lot to learn regarding emergency preparedness. In the case of New Orleans during Katrina, some 20,000 people needed to be evacuated — those who either ignored previous mandatory evacuation orders from the city or were stranded due to their circumstances — but with only a few hundred tour buses. And the metropolitan bus system was unable to reach people located in the outlying rural areas. To make matters worse, the parish school buses were not included in the emergency plans.

“Right now, many plans are written based on contract buses, but more often than not those contract buses could come from several different states,” Honoré said. “So the immediate capability generally relies on the state and the county using their school buses.”

Unfortunately, in the case of Katrina, pictures of school buses abandoned in flooded parking lots are burned into the annals of history. It was obvious that school buses weren’t part of the plan. Another problem was the perception that New Orleans was unsafe, that anarchy prevailed. Many of the area’s school bus drivers themselves had already evacuated, or the largely older and female driver corps felt in harms way if they drove into the city because of the violence they saw reported on TV.

“If you go out to rural communities, you don’t normally see 25-year-olds driving a bus. It’s somebody who’s on a second career, or it’s for added income to a small farm. A lot of people who drive a bus are Moms,” he said. “I rode a school bus all four years in high school, an hour and 15 minutes to get to school every day, a rural bus. And the bus operator kept the bus at his house, he was a farmer.”

And according to him, those drivers should be compensated by the federal and state governments.

“I do think that in those rural areas where buses are an integral part of the evacuation plan, then it should be set up so those drivers, in particular those owners/operators, are immediately compensated for their effort they put into providing that transportation when needed,” he added. “Every mile that bus runs requires maintenance, requires fuel and for what ever time the driver puts into it.”

During Katrina, for all these reasons, Honoré and his units wondered why the school buses weren’t being used. The National Guard regularly uses school buses to move troops. At Camp Shelby, Miss., more than 430,000 National Guard troops were trained under Honoré, and the school bus was integral in getting them from point A to point B. They’re light enough to navigate moderately-improved roads to gravel roads, all in a climate-controlled environment. In fact, Honoré said Army logistics units are required to have soldiers trained as school bus drivers, and many infantry also become certified. And of course, school buses are a big part of the lives of children who live on U.S. military bases across the globe.

“They’re an integral part of what we do in the Army. They’re an invaluable asset because they’re key in the transportation requirement for mass movement of people that most counties and states have immediate access to,” added Honoré. “Unfortunately, many times those buses are not written into the plan, and they’re added after the fact as opposed to being totally integrated. But they have the flexibility because you’ve got trained drivers and safe buses.”

So, as it was being documented to riveted TV viewers across the country and world, Honoré greased the wheels of evacuation efforts by flying via helicopter to Baton Rouge to ask then Gov. Kathleen Blanco to mobilize school buses from elsewhere around the state.

“During Hurricane Katrina, on Wednesday and Thursday, we were struggling to get enough buses in here from around the country,” the general recalls. “At that time, Gov. Blanco called each one of the parish presidents and asked them to send buses to help with the evacuation, and many of those buses didn’t make it in.”

By that Friday, what buses were available to the National Guard under Honoré’s command were moving evacuees out of the Superdome hell and off to the safe havens of Baton Rouge, Houston and elsewhere.

“Ignorance can be fixed, but stupidity is for life. A disaster can make you look ignorant and stupid,” said Honoré. “The media will let everyone know which squad you are in.”

Reprinted from the May 2009 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.

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