Retired General Russel Honoré Addresses Federal COVID-19 Response, Upcoming Hurricane Season

Retired Lieutenant General Russel Honoré is an expert on federal disaster response. As the commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, he was responsible for leading and coordinating the military relief efforts across New Orleans and the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. He has written several books on the subject, which you can find here. As a native Louisianan, he has a unique view on how disasters affect the local area in particular. In May, he was asked to testify in front of the House Oversight Committee on the federal response to COVID-19, and what could have been done better. Shortly afterward, he spoke with Big Easy Magazine to share some of his thoughts on that subject, as well as the upcoming hurricane season.

JB: General Honore, thank you so much for your time. 

At the time of this interview, the U.S. is about to reach 100,000 deaths due to COVID-19. While I’m sure not every death was preventable, do you feel that some of this devastation could have been mitigated with a stronger response from the federal government?

General Honoré: I do think we could have done better. From the perspective that our response was slow and indecisive. The United States and South Korea – a country where I spent four years of my life while I was in uniform – had their first patient #1 on the same day. You look at the results of the actions that South Korea took in mitigation right upfront, mask-wearing, and a very aggressive testing cycle; they have reopened their economy successfully. They’re in a negative status on most days on anyone new {testing positive}, and they’ve adapted regimented {contact} tracing, a supported isolation, and treatment. 

That being said, I think we could have done better. And I say that with remorse knowing that as of today we’ve lost over 100,000 of our citizens. But my heartfelt opinion is we could have done this better, collectively as a government and as a society. Because much of what we could have done, we didn’t need to wait for Washington government to tell us to do it. We saw in the opening hours of what happened in the state of Washington with the nursing home – that should have been a blaring call to every nursing home operation to lock their nursing home down. You saw what happened in New Orleans, with the opening cases coming out of the nursing home. That should have been blaring across the entire state. Because this was a high-end nursing home in New Orleans. It wasn’t one that you might say that was run on a minimum budget. It was a high-end nursing home, and we saw the impact of that, yet a month and a half later, we get the word that there’s a devastating impact on nursing homes in St. John’s Parish, and in Pointe Coupee Parish, and in St. Tammany. That’s heart-wrenching because it shouldn’t have taken the federal government to tell us we gotta protect the nursing homes. 

And then we saw news breaking of what was happening a month ago in slaughterhouses up north in sparsely populated communities in Colorado and South Dakota and in Illinois, and just last week in our own crawfish industry, they just about shut down. Because after seeing what happened in those places, we failed to take action. It’s like, everybody is waiting for the federal government, to tell them not to do stupid. 

I think it’s a collective decision that we’ve made that we failed to act. On the other hand, you see in the city of New Orleans where the mayor took very decisive action starting on St. Patrick’s weekend that I think has made a difference in New Orleans. 

JB: New Orleans was hard-hit by COVID-19 in the beginning but the city seems to have quickly turned that around. What do you think the city got right, and what can the state as a whole as well as other cities and states learn from that response?

General Honoré: Well I think it clearly demonstrates that when you have a successful mitigation plan that emphasizes staying home, that emphasizes protecting the vulnerable population – the elderly and people with secondary conditions – that you focus on washing hands, and wearing that damn mask, and closing down places like bars and restaurants, it works. It works. The process works if you deny the virus the ability to openly spread between people. If you deny that chance to do that, you will save lives. And I think that’s a lesson from New Orleans that can be passed on to every city that’s climbing up to reach their peak now. If you act now, once you reach you peak, you can immediately go down. But you have to practice these procedures of mitigation, distance, hand washing, and PPE masks for all of your public employees; sanitation, public transportation. That is a collective piece that has to happen, and with all due respect, I think that is something that you all have done well to this point. 

JB: Do you feel one reason individuals, businesses, and even cities and states were slow to act is due to the conflicting messaging that they were getting, with the federal government (in the beginning) making it sound like there was no threat, even after we had cases in the United States?

General Honoré: I believe you nailed it. I wrote a book a few years ago, Stuck on Stupid. We were stuck on stupid, collectively as a government and as a people. I remember when we were in this a month down in New Orleans, and we had idiots on spring break in Florida – thousands of young people on the beaches in Florida because they had not closed the beaches. And now you’ve got communities all over the country paying because those young people went home and some of them were carrying the virus and didn’t know it, and spread it around the country. 

You know, I’ve been asked many times on national television about the impact that Mardi Gras had. I said, “Well, there was no national message that gave any indication that we should have canceled Mardi Gras.” The federal government, who would normally put those warnings out, had not given those warnings. The idea at that stage coming out of the federal government was not focused on public health, they were issuing political messages, not public health messages. That being said, I said, “look if we had 1.5 million people at Mardi Gras, you have 2.5 million every day in New York’s public transportation system. But you don’t ask me how the epidemic spread in New York, why the hell are you focusing on Mardi Gras?” Their public transportation system serves in one day more people than we have coming to Mardi Gras. After all, we did cancel St. Patrick’s Day – and I say “we,” the mayor did – when it became obvious that we had a problem. That the nation had a problem. 

JB: Do you think that the same politicization around messaging is what is happening now? President Trump has said that the U.S. has the greatest testing capacity in the world and has pointed out that some testing sites are being shut down to a lack of demand. At the same time, some local and state officials have complained that there is actually a shortage of testing capacity, particularly when it comes to what’s needed to reopen. Is there any merit to what the President is saying?

General Honoré: The quick answer to your question is yes. They have confused the priorities. I’ve said this on many national media outlets; the priority has to be on saving lives not the economy. And they’ve tried to balance – well, not even balance. Now they’re telling people “hey, we have to save the economy at all costs.” What that has caused is a lot of us to lose our grandparents. A lot of kids have lost their grandparents because the government has not put public health first. They’ve put the economy first and they’ve confused people. Now that confusion is delaying our ability to suppress the epidemic. Because they’re telling people to open the economy at all costs, and the interpretation by many is, “I don’t have to wear a mask because the President, or the Governor, has opened the economy.” 

Now, the same thing that the professors and the doctors predicted would happen is happening. We’re seeing a spike in most of those states that, by most appraisals, started early. They did not complete Phase One, which was getting to that point where you had no new cases. They started off – many of them – before they had even peaked in their existing exposure. 

So yes, we’ve had problems because of political messaging. One lesson I learned from Katrina, and I put in my book Survival, when you’re dealing with disaster, it’s nice and comfortable for politicians to focus on messaging. But what they need to do is get their asses focused on logistics. As we saw, some of the horrific impact of the federal government not focusing on logistics further exacerbated the exposure of more people. We didn’t have the PPE we needed – not only for the first responders and the doctors – we didn’t have it for the people who were sustaining the supply chain, the people that were sustaining the transportation system. As a result of that, we have seen the outcomes. We didn’t have it for the nursing homes, we didn’t have it for the jails, we didn’t have it for the state-run veteran’s homes, and those particular places that didn’t have it that should have had it have seen some of the highest mortality rates because they didn’t have the PPE to get to people to protect themselves.

If you want to get out of a disaster, you’d better figure out the logistics.

JB: Logistics is something that you’ve consistently stressed in all of your interviews. At the same time, people at the federal level have said that it was better for each state to handle their own logistics. What could have been solved by handling logistics at the federal level rather than having each state handle its own logistics?

General Honoré: The federal government took the entrepreneurial approach by letting each state go out on their own, by shunting the federal responsibility – which is a federal responsibility – to provide, through the national stockpile, the PPE when we’re dealing with an epidemic/pandemic. That’s the role of the federal government. Their approach was, “well, we’re gonna break the rules, we’re gonna let every state do this.” It’s ridiculous that we’ve had states bidding on PPE in China – where most of the PPE came from – and they were bidding against the federal government agencies, or they were bidding against other states. That’s ridiculous. 

Going back through the history of our country, imagine if General Washington told all his men they had to find their own rifles. That’s stupid. We don’t do stuff like that. That’s why we have the national stockpile – which was not sustained. When we should have been ordering – based on the early reports coming out of China – more PPE, we didn’t. The nation was – in messaging – in a state of denial from the White House. And certain media outlets were in a state of denial. Before you knew it, we had Washington State as a hot spot, New York as a hot spot, California hot spot, and New Orleans. 

I think in many ways, in spite of what a lot of these conservative governors were saying, I think people stayed home, and that helped them. Now, they went from an informal, short-term stay home, to opening. And we still don’t have the logistics to do the testing, and the federal plan is for each state to acquire their own testing equipment, which is stupid. I’ve never seen this done on a national scale, where we’re using federal dollars that are given to the states and having them come up with their own testing protocols and their own test kit. That is a very stupid way to do this. 

JB: Do you feel like the President should have made a wider, more immediate use of the Defense Production Act to order U.S. companies to begin mass-producing PPE?

General Honoré: Hell yes, absolutely. Should have been done, didn’t do it. He had them volunteer – and a couple of companies did: Honeywell, Northrup Grumman, and Ford put some production lines together, but it wasn’t mandated, it was, “we would like for you to do this.” We should have done it, because – let’s face it – this time next year we’ll still be wearing masks, and we have not stepped up our production sufficiently in the United States to provide what I call “social masks,” nor have we produced sufficient number for healthcare workers and for people like those working inside the food chain, inside these slaughterhouses, inside the jails, and inside the nursing homes. We owe our people a better supply chain than what we have. We need logistics to work if we’re going to protect people. It’s very clear now: if you wear your mask, you wear the PPE… If you look at New York, by profession, some of the lowest rates of infection were the healthcare workers who were treating the sick people. You would’ve thought they would have taken the biggest hit; they did not. They have one of the lowest {infection rates} by profession – the doctors, the nurses, and the first responders. Why? Because they wore masks!

JB: Speaking of logistical issues, I want to ask about a more individualized logistical issue that’s coming up. With essential supplies (nonperishables, toiletries, OTC medications, etc.) already hard to find, or extremely overpriced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what are your recommendations for how people can prepare for new shelter-in-place or evacuation orders due to a hurricane?

General Honoré: I would tell people that this hurricane season will be different. I would say to collaborate with friends and relatives and find a place where you can go couch surf to ride out a hurricane. A lot of the hotels are still closed, and I would feel very uncomfortable taking my family into a gymnasium that’s not air-conditioned somewhere in Mississippi. That’s where we end up sending a lot of our people – the people without money, the poor. The people with money will call Nashville and reserve five rooms. The people without money will wait for a bus to pick them up and take them to some unairconditioned school gym someplace. What I’m telling them is, build it into your budget, build it into your plan, when that hurricane turns around Florida, you need to get your ass to another state. Try to go stay with friends and family and take your pets with you. 

We’ve got two things going on, we’re starting to fight a two-front war here. We’ve got the pandemic, which is not concerned about our inconvenience. The pandemic is looking to move from one person to the next. And then we have the hurricanes. They don’t give a damn about the pandemic. We have to be able to look to the Gulf and see what’s coming, and deal with what’s already here. It will take the best of us looking out for our neighbors, working inside our family and social groups to get ready and to get out of town when the hurricane comes. 

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