Hurricane Katrina caused immense grief to many, with countless lives lost and shredded streets saturated with ruins. While most rather stash away their morbid memories of the eerie storm, LaShay and Mike choose to be reminded of it every single day – and it is not hard to understand why.
The United States has had its fair share of natural disasters, but it was one in particular that left a significant scar in the lives of many Americans – the devastating Hurricane Katrina. One of the individuals who had their lives turned upside down by the storm was LaShay Brown.
A Storm Is Brewing
When Hurricane Katrina knocked on Florida coasts’ door, it hit like a ton of bricks. Initially classified as a Category 1 storm due to its 80 miles per hour winds, Governor Jeb Bush had no other choice by to announce a state of emergency. A day later the storm intensified significantly. It was not long before Louisiana’s Governor, Kathleen Blanco, issued a state of emergency as well. Having turned into a Category 2 storm by then, the White House speedily sent its National Guard troops to the Gulf Coast for further assistance.
Katrina Heads To New Orleans
Unfortunately, the calls made those first few days of the storm ended up doing more harm than good. While many thought the smart thing to do would be to escape the hurricane, like the Mayor of New Orleans, Nagin, who initiated an evacuation of metro-area residents, that decision would have been wise had it been done before the storm deteriorated. Hurricane Katrina was growing more vigorous by the hour. By the next morning, on August 28, 2005, Katrina was reidentified as a Category 5 storm.
Mandatory Evacuation Ordered
Not thinking through his plan, Mayor Nagin soon called on all New Orleans residents to gather little valuables and evacuate. No longer was this a voluntary evacuation. As a quick-fix solution to having tens of thousands of homeless New Orleans residents on his hands, Nagin made sure the city’s enormous football stadium, the Superdome, was made into a protective asylum for whoever was in need, along with other last resort shelters that were quickly stationed. Sadly, not all residents managed to escape their homes, meaning they were left stranded alone.
It Was Too Late
One of the variables that affected a large sum of people able to flee their homes was owning a private vehicle. Since many New Orleans residents were dependent on public transportation, by the time the notice came about a mandatory evacuation, those people had no way of escaping a horrible fate. One of those unfortunate families was the Browns. Hearing of the alarming hurricane heading their way, the Brown family was left marooned, without any shelter to protect them.
They say everything is clearer once the storm passes, but this was not the case for the residents of New Orleans. The hurricane left such a devastating blow, water flooded the streets and homes of many. Plenty of people were missing, and the city was in complete ruins, so President George Bush had no choice but to declared the place an Emergency Disaster. The state of panic and general alarm caused people to become short tempered and violent. Additionally, forces had to search for those who were missing, causing great chaos all around.
The Browns Were Stranded
Para-rescue specialist Mike Maroney was called in to assist with the searches. Having gained much experience doing these sort of rescue missions before, Maroney never would have guessed this one was about to be extremely different. Patrolling in the skies above the devastation, Maroney had a clear shot of anyone below. Then, he noticed a family signaling him for assistance. Swiftly, Maroney yelled out to his team, and the entire group proceeded to rescue the Browns – but then, the unimaginable happened.
Maroney Saved Many
Beyond the experience he had before this eventful day, Maroney recovered over 140 people from the Hurricane Katrina wreck. It was his job, and he was following orders with every rescue, but there was more to his job than doing what he was told. Maroney chose this job to begin with because he had a personal sense of obligation to help those in need. Still, fate had a different idea the moment he discovered the helpless Brown family waving him desperately.
One Hug Changed Everything
The team got to work. Spotting the best and most secure way to get the Brown family members to safety, Maroney made sure all were fine and well. Then, LaShay Brown did the unexpected. Overwhelmed with emotion and unable to contain her feelings of joy, LaShay approached Master Sergeant Maroney. Unsure of what was coming next, Maroney stood by inactively as LaShay opened her arms and gave him a sobbing, heartfelt embrace. Little did he know that little girl was about to change his life.
A Rescue Retold
In an interview he gave the Air Force Times, Maroney remembered how that one moment was enough to make him feel differently than he felt before. LaShay was so excited about feeling safe again; it was as if she did not experience trauma at all. Instead of weeping or keeping to herself, the little girl was far too busy pointing out her school and home to Maroney and his team as they flew above the ruins. Maroney recalled being blown away by her character.
Maroney Writes About The Rescue
Maroney kept a journal. He found that it helped him keep clear memories of his life’s special events, such as the one that occurred that very same eventful day. Reading his diary during his Air Force Times interview, Maroney explained which memory stuck with him the most: “Picked up the cutest little girl today. Gave me the biggest hug, and I melted.” Then Maroney elaborated why the simple embrace had such a tremendous impact on him.
She Gave Him The Strength To Continue
“For me, that picture is her smile, and the embrace she gave me was enough to refill my tank, and we went back out and began picking up more people,” Maroney went on. Working in an occupation that is so demanding, it is important to catch a break every now and then. The little girl’s hug helped put things in perspective for heroic Maroney, and remember why he does what he does: “On that day, it was exactly what I needed,” he said with a smile.
A Hug Forever Captured
Since the Hurricane Katrina was one for the books, plenty of press was present the moment Maroney’s helicopter landed. Ecstatic to be walking on steady ground, LaShay embraced her rescuer again – but this time, a photographer managed to snatch a picture of the touching moment. LaShay did not care; she just wanted to express her gratitude. Later, the same photo was featured in several magazines and made headlines all over the news. Maroney also received a copy of the picture, one he took with him everywhere he went.
The Picture Goes Global
Before he knew it, Maroney’s picture with LaShay became the embodied symbol of the importance of human compassion and assistance through generosity. The moving photo did not only make its way to Afganistan and Iraq with Maroney, but it was printed on Burger King place mats, At&T phone cards and military coins as a constant reminder. The picture became of historical importance, boldened by People magazine’s decision to put it on its cover ten years later.
The Picture Meant So Much
PTSD is a common disorder for soldiers who unfortunately experienced morbid situations and have seen dreadful things throughout their service. Maroney, as a Master Sergeant, has been through enough as well. Therefore, having his picture with LaShay constantly by his side comforted him while he was on deployment. It was only a matter of time until Maroney would reconnect with the little girl who was there for him more times than he could count, as he wanted to thank her for all that she’s done.
The Search Begins
Almost five years later, Maroney decided it was time for him to meet the girl who changed his life. While it was him who rescued hers, he felt as though he had to know her. Maroney wrote a post on social media but unfortunately did not turn out to be a success as it only received 42 likes. He went on to tweet at Oprah, who did not respond either. Relentless about his decision to meet LaShay, Maroney posted about his situation again – but this time, his post went viral.
Maroney’s second social media post was made after ten years of meeting LaShay for the first time. Using hashtag “FindKatrinaGirl”, Maroney’s post was receiving plenty of attention. What really set his plans in motion was when The Real television show’s producers saw his message and decided that they wanted to assist with the search. The producers found “Katrina Girl” in no time and contacted Maroney to let him know her details and that she wished to see him, too.
Producers Make Connections
There is no business like show business, something The Real show producers knew very well. In exchange for providing Maroney with LaShay’s information, they suggested warmly that the two would meet on the show. Since The Real contains celebrity women who host guests and discuss their opinions openly on all sort of topics, it seemed like a great opportunity to spike ratings. The on-air reunion was promising as an emotional and patriotic story that was bound to gain a lot of good press for the show.
Who Is Katrina Girl?
Considering how Hurricane Katrina was 10 years prior to their reunion, plenty has passed since then. LaShay was only 3-years-old when Maroney took her into his arms and promised her and her family a safe future. There is no denying the search was made a whole lot simpler with the use of social media and the TV show. Maroney started feeling as though their reunion was fast approaching, only then he realized – they 3-year-old girl he once rescued should already be a 13-year-old teen.
The little girl turned young woman lived in Mississippi and just entered high school. Before the two of them knew it, a date was set for their scheduled appearance, and they were invited onto the set in September 2015. One literal hug, countless of mental, supportive hugs and 10 years later, Maroney was finally able to carefully plan out what he was going to say to the little girl who helped him through difficult times in his life. Finally, it was time.
A Tearful Reunion
Maroney told LaShay, “Your hug, it helped me through hard days and rough days. You rescued me more than I rescued you.” The on-air reunion was an emotional one. There wasn’t a dry eye on the entire set. Later, Maroney told WLOX: “If not for her hug and her smile on that day, my life would probably be a lot different.” It is not common for one to be granted the opportunity to thank a person who greatly influenced their life, but Maroney was lucky.
LaShay’s Mother Recalls The Rescue
Giving People magazine an interview of her side of things, LaShay’s mother, Shantrell Brown, explained why that day was terrifying for her, despite being rescued. “I was crying because I was scared,” she began to say and went on to discuss the anguish caused due to both the circumstances and the fact that it was her first time riding in a helicopter. Apparently, LaShay helped guide her mother’s way too since she was so calm and collected, instead of it being the other way around.
LaShay Was Always Special
On another occasion, Shantrell said she was already well aware of how exceptionally unique her daughter is, but hearing Maroney speak of her daughter in such admiration, she realized just how rare she was: “I’d already known she was special from that day. But when I heard him say that on the show, he was saying she was his hero after everything he’d done. Until he said that about LaShay and her smile and hug, I never knew that could mean so much to a person.”
A Dream Fulfilled
For Maroney, it was not enough to simply thank LaShay and her family. He wanted to find a way to give back so that they would comprehend just how touched he was by LaShay’s simple gesture. Then the TV show producers announced the best news Maroney could receive – the show granted the Brown family $10,000. The giving spree did not cease there, as LaShay’s mother was offered a car – which she gladly turned down in favor of awarding Maroney with $10,000, too.
A Friendship Begins
This was the start of a beautiful friendship. After exchanging contact information, Maroney swore he would not lose touch with his newly adopted family. It was not long before he drove up to the new Brown residence in Waveland, Mississippi, accompanied by his sons. People magazine reported Maroney taught the Brown family members how to swim and carried scheduled calls with LaShay, simply to stay in touch.
Later, Maroney was awarded an honorary citizenship from the Mayor of Waveland, Mike Smith.
LaShay wanted to walk in her hero’s footsteps. After doing some research, she read about the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and knew this was what she looked for. Sponsored by the U.S. Military, this pre-training program main goal is to teach “students in secondary educational institutions the values of citizenship, service to the United States, and personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment.” LaShay signed up for the JROTC branch at Bay High School in Waveland, Mississippi.
Following In His Footsteps
LaShay had an interview for People magazine as well, where she was asked about her decision to join JROTC. She said, “It was very interesting and a challenge, and because I had never done it before. I knew if I joined I would have help from Mike along the way if I needed it, or was confused about anything.” Maroney, who by then became an integrative part of her life, also assisted in whatever way he could and was overjoyed to her LaShay was fully committed to continuing aiding others.
Maroney and LaShay had a bond that could not be broken. Therefore, when it came time for LaShay to invite someone to her JROTC ball, she knew exactly who she was going to ask: Master Sergeant Maroney. Maroney told People, “I’m going because I would do anything to repay the hug to LaShay and her family. They mean as much to me as my own.” It was almost as if there was nothing he wouldn’t do to make her and her family happy.
One Saturday night during March 2017, the JROTC teens organized a gathering at a local Mississippi community center. Every attendant had the option to bring a plus one, and one hearing the news, LaShay was over the moon. No one else was better suiting to attend the gathering with her than Maroney. With her hero by her side, LaShay was all smiles as she danced the night away with the man who saved her life. That evening, LaShay felt like she was walking on cloud nine.
When asked about her future plans, LaShay repeatedly said on several occasions that she fully intends to join the military. This was evident from her enrollment in the JROTC program which reassured her of this call, although she does not know which branch would be the most suiting for her capabilities. Maroney told People, “I am proud of her no matter what she does and will support her in everything she does. I think she understands service and I believe that she will do great things no matter what she chooses.”
Maroney Continues To Help Others
Maroney discovered one of his Air Force injuries was too severe to continue his demanding career. After his retirement, Maroney remained himself – a noble, kind hearted, generous humanitarian. Since he was no longer able to serve, he thought of other ways to contribute to his country, such as acting as a mentor and trainer for young people who wish to recruit. His outlook is an inspiration to all around him: “Life in service to the planet is important […] Service makes life that much more appreciated.”
Whether you are a teacher, nurse, flight attendant or construction worker – it does not matter. As LaShay and Maroney’s story has proven, what truly matters is if one is a generous and considerate human being. While people come from different backgrounds and might consist of contradicting opinions and beliefs, what bonds us all is the willingness to contribute even in the hardest of times, be it through a delicate hug or a genuine act of kindness, just like Maroney and LaShay did for one another.