One hug was all it took. LeShay Brown was only a toddler when Hurricane Katrina devastated her hometown of New Orleans. She was stranded in the devastation of the storm, with her family, until she was rescued by Master Sergeant Mike Maroney. LeShay showed her appreciation to Maroney with a warm embrace. That one hug led somewhere where no one expected.
Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. gulf coast in 2005. Many people were not ready for the impact it would have on the area. It completely changed both the physical and cultural norms of the area. Thousands of families were effected by the storm and 1,800 people lost their lives. One of those families, that lost almost everything, was the Browns. Luckily, their story has a happy ending.
A Storm Is Coming
Hurricane Katrina hit the Floridian coast on August 25, 2005, as a category 1 storm. Even though it was only a category 1, it still had winds up to 80 miles per hour. As a further precaution, Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency. By August 26, the storm had become a category 2 and was heading for the next state, Louisiana. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco followed suit and also declared a state of emergency. Around the same time, the White House sent the National Guard to the Gulf Coast. Unfortunately, even the National Guard was not enough to prevent the devastation that was to come.
The Storm Heads To New Orleans
Many say the decisions by local government officials, in the following days, were part of the reason why there was so much damage by the storm. Many things could have been avoided. No matter what local officials decided, Katrina was headed to New Orleans in full force. On August 27, 2005, the New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a voluntary evacuation of metro-area residents. Unfortunately, soon after, Hurricane Katrina became a category 5 storm, with winds up to 160 miles per hour.
Mandatory Evacuation Finally Ordered
After the storm became labeled category 5, Nagin finally order the mandatory evacuation as well as created shelters as a “last resort” for residents who could not get out of the city. The main shelter was the city’s professional football stadium, the Superdome. It was reported approximately 25,000 residents sought shelter there during the storm. Tragically, it was too late for many residents to even it make it to the Superdome. Families were stranded and alone. No help was coming. But, the storm was.
It Was Too Late
One decision many find as a bad one, during this time, dealt with Ray Nagin’s evacuation order. Many felt it should have been issued earlier, as many people did not understand the danger of what was to come. When the mandatory evacuation order was issued, it was too late for many residents to leave. Approximately one-fifth of the city did not have a car and, therefore, had no way of getting out. One of those families stranded was the Browns.
Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in the early morning hours of August 29. By 9 am, lower areas of the city were already completely submerged. When the storm had finished passing through the city, 80% was submerged with water levels as high as 20 feet. Sadly, rather than coming together to rebuild, many people turned to violence and began looting the city. Officers were sent to stop the violence as well as begin rescuing those who were stranded.
The Browns Were Stranded
LaShay Brown and her family was one that had to stay in their home during the storm. They were stranded in their home for 3 days. Luckily, pararesue specialist Sergeant Mike Maroney was patrolling above in a helicopter, when he saw a family waving frantically from their roof. Maroney got the Brown family aboard the helicopter and they headed to safety. Neither the Browns nor Maroney saw what was coming next.
Maroney Was A Life Saver
Maroney, by this point had already served in the military for several years. However, he was in New Orleans for more than just the orders. He also felt morally obligated to be there, to be helping those who needed his help most. The Browns weren’t the only ones that Maroney helped rescue. He helped save over 140 people during his time in New Orleans. However, it was LeShay and her family that he remembered most.
One Hug, Forever Remembered
Maroney and his fellow officers helped bring the Brown family to safety. Once the whole family was safely on dry ground, LeShay did something no one expected. With all her excitement, about knowing she was safe, she embraced Sergeant Maroney in a tight squeeze. No one could have known how much of an impact that hug would have.
A Rescue Recounted
Maroney knew almost immediately after that hug, that the little girl was special. He did not know her name, but he was grateful to have met her. In an interview with the Air Force Times, Maroney recalled the fearless little girl. He said the toddler was pointing out her home and school as they were flying over the devastation. She embraced Maroney when they landed at the airport, once she knew her family was safe.
Maroney Documented The Rescue
Many people keep a journal or a diary in order to remember things in the future. Maroney is one of those people. In a video for the Air Force Times, Maroney read his journal entry from the day of the Brown’s rescue. He said “Picked up the cutest little girl today. Gave me the biggest hug, and I melted.”
She Gave Him Strength
During an interview with Airman, Maroney recounted what that hug meant to him at the moment is happened. He said “The embrace she gave me was enough to refill my tank, and we went back out and began picking up more people. On that day, it was exactly what I needed.” He had lost hope and mentally was not able to continue. However, her hug reenergized him and gave him the strength to move forward.
Put Him On Cloud 9
Maroney recalls how hard the whole week was. He knew it would be a challenge with all the horrors he would face. However, he thought he was mentally prepared. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and seeing the devastation was deeply depressing. However, once he rescued the Brown family, his mindset changed. He was given a new purpose, he felt reinvigorated. “It had been such a rough week, when she wrapped me up in that hug, I was in la-la land,” Maroney said to the Washington Post. “Nothing else existed. I was just loving that hug.”
A Hug Captured
Press photographers were all over the New Orleans area. While on patrol, Maroney had one traveling with him. She remained as out of sight as possible, snapping photos along the way. The photographer was able to capture the very moment LeShay embraced Maroney. The photo was printed and given to media outlets around the globe. Maroney was also given a copy, which he took with him everywhere, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Picture Goes Viral
Soon after the picture began being printed, it quickly went viral. The picture became the symbol of the rebuilding and rescue effort in New Orleans. Maroney said he saw the picture everywhere – on military coins, Burger King place mats, and even AT&T phone cards. (The picture would resurface years later, and land on the cover of People‘s “American Heroes” collector’s edition.)
The Picture Meant So Much
Maroney, like many other soldiers who have been in war, has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Therefore, having a photograph of a moment where he felt so much bliss was very important to him. While he was deployed, he would look at the photograph when he was struggling and the little girl’s smile made everything better. From early on, he knew he would one day have to show his gratitude to the little girl and her family.
The Search Begins
It had been 5 years after the Maroney had done his rescue mission in New Orleans. At this point, Maroney felt it was time to find that little girl. Therefore, he took to social media, reaching out to people he believed could help in his search. He even reached out to Oprah. However, his plea went unanswered. However, he did not give up and one of his posts eventually hit.
Social Media Success
Maroney kept posting about his experience so many years ago. Luckily, someone was listening – a 16-year-old teenager from Michigan. Andrew Goard loves pararescuers, so much so he has an Instagram account devoted to the jumpers. He heard about Maroney’s campaign and posted to his this Instagram about the search with the hashtag “FindKatrinaGirl”. The campaign spread and was eventually found by the Air Force Times, who wrote an article about the search. From there, the story went viral.
The viral post finally caught fire 10 years after the initial rescue. Once the Air Force Times published the article about the search, the story was quickly picked up by other news outlet across the country. TV producers of the show “The Real” got wind of the search and decided to help. They found the “Katrina Girl” and told Maroney he could meet her soon.
Producers Connect Them
“The Real” is a show targeted towards young and middle-aged women. It has a panel of female hosts and they discuss their life experiences. The producers of the show were touched by Maroney’s story. They knew they had to reconnect the two (not to mention the ratings would go through the roof). Both the “Katrina Girl” and Maroney were invited on the show to finally reunite.
Meet The Katrina Girl
The girl in the photo, it was discovered was only 3-years-old at the time it was taken. Now that 10 years had passed, that little girl was a 13-year-old young woman. Her name was LeShay Brown. She was living in Mississippi, about to enter high school and had dreams of becoming a lawyer.
Ten years had passed since that amazing rescue and iconic hug. Therefore, when producers told Maroney he was finally going to meet the girl face-to-face once more, he was completely overwhelmed and overjoyed. “I can’t wait to meet her to tell her how important she is,” he told People magazine. He thought for years what he might say to this little girl, and now he would finally get the chance.
She Had No Idea He Was Looking
LeShay was only 3-years-old when the photo was snapped and she was saved from the devastation. Even though she did not have much memory of the experience, she was still very happy to hear Maroney was looking for her. “I was excited that he was looking for me for such a long time, ” she told People. “I’ve barely seen any of the pictures!” However, it wasn’t hard for her to find that picture of the two of them embracing.
Finally, after waiting so long, Maroney and LeShay were invited to appear as guests on “The Real”, in September 2015. After holding that photograph close to his heart for so many years, Maroney would finally meet the little girl. Maroney appeared on stage alone first, with just the panel of hosts. He recounted as to why LeShay’s hug was so inspiring. “If she’s strong enough to handle this, I can handle this,” he said.
Time To Meet
The hosts continued to ask Maroney a few more questions, which helped build up both Maroney’s, the audiences’, and the viewers’ anticipation. One host asked Maroney about the events of the day. He said he had no idea he was being photographed. He added the hug from LeShay “meant a lot.” A brief introduction about LeShay was said and then she was finally brought out on stage.
LeShay was certainly different than the 3-year-old in the photograph. She had grown much taller. However, she was still just as beautiful as she was so many years ago. As she walked on stage, she nervously pushed her hair out of her face. After greeting 2 of the hosts, she was finally able to hug Maroney once more.
Who Rescued Who?
It had been 10 years since the two embraced. You could feel the energy created by the two throughout the room. It was finally time for Maroney to express his gratitude. As he spoke, he was holding back his tears, which quickly made some of the hosts tear up as well. Speaking to LeShay, Maroney said “Your hug, it helped me through hard days, and rough days. You rescued me more than I rescued you.”
The Tears Began Flowing
Of course, after Maroney said that LeShay had actually rescued him, the tears started flowing. Maroney explained to TV news WLOX, “If not for her hug and her smile on that day, my life would probably be a lot different.” He was so happy that he was finally able to express that to her and on such a public stage.
LeShay’s Mother Remembers The Rescue Well
In an interview with People, Shantrell Brown (pictured far left), recalled the memory of her family’s rescue. “I was crying because I was scared,” she said. Shantrell added that LeShay remained very brave throughout the whole experience. Maroney agreed with this recollection and said LeShay was comforting everyone else, even though she was so young at the time.
Shantrell Shares More
Shantrell continued, in her interview with People, saying “The helicopter had open doors, so I looked out and you could just see all the water over everything, and it was just too much for me, so she [LeShay] was comforting me.” Shantrell is a mother of 5 children. As she flew over her devastated city she feared for her children’s safety as well as their future. But, LeShay remained brave in the face of uncertainty.
LeShay Is Special
Shantrell knew her daughter was special in more ways than she could imagine. However, she did not realize how much of an impact she could have on a person until she witnessed the reunion. “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,” Shantrell said in an itnerview with Airman. “Until he said that about LeShay and her smile and hug, I never knew that could mean so much to a person.”
Dreamt Of This Day
Maroney had spent many years thinking about that little girl, her family and the hug. After the reunion on “The Real” took place he told the Browns that he had “dreamt of this day for a long time” and that “finding you guys, and knowing you’re okay, has been a weight off my back.” He was happy to see the Browns had found a new home despite the hardships they faced.
A Dream Come True
Maroney felt that just saying thank you was not enough. He hoped he could give the family so much more than that. Luckily, “The Real” acted as his fairy godmother and granted his wish. The Browns were given $10,000 and offered a car. However, Shantrell turned down the car so Maroney could also recieve $10,000.
Money Well Spent
It certainy showed where LeShay got her love and generosity from, when Shantrell turned down the car, as that is exactly what she spent her money on – a new car. She also bought LeShay a much desired iPhone. Maroney decided he would pay back some debt he had accumulated. But, his first purchase was a milkshake for LeShay, as she once told him she loved ice cream.
Back To Reality
After the show was over, no one knew what would happen with LeShay and Maroney. However, they chose to stay in touch. Soon after the episode was filmed, Maroney told People, “We’ve already been texting, checking in on each other, and talking quite a bit.” Both LeShay and Maroney were excited to be reconnected.
A Friendship Blooms
Soon after the show was filmed, Maroney even visited the Browns at their new hometown in Mississippi. While visiting, Maroney taught LeShay how to swim. Maroney was even given honorary citizenship from the Mayor of Waveland, Mike Smith. When he is not visiting, LeShay and Maroney have weekly phone calls to catch up.
Once the episode aired, Maroney and LeShay quickly shot into fame. News outlets everywhere were covering their story. “LeShay is famous! Everyone has been coming up to us every day, asking us about it,” Shantrell told People. However, LeShay saw her newfound fame in a different light. She said “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to run bleachers when I go back to school because I missed practices.”
As Maroney had such a positive and strong influence on LeShay, it is no surprise that she decided to join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, also known as the JROTC, at her high school in Waveland. JROTC is a pre-training United States military sponsored program to teach “students in secondary educational institutions the values of citizenship, service to the United States, and personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment.”
Following In Maroney’s Footsteps
LeShay was excited to join the JROTC and ready for the challenges the program may throw at her. LeShay told People “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, of course, was ecstatic about her decision and was there to help her whenever necessary.
The One Question
Maroney and LeShay had clearly become very close since meeting again on “The Real”. Therefore, when it came time for LeShay to invite someone to escort her to her JROTC ball, she knew immediately who she would ask – Sergeant Mike Maroney. He accepted the invitation. “I’m going because I would do anything to repay the hug to LeShay and her family. They mean as much to me as my own,” Maroney told People.
Many of the JROTC participants, as well as their escorts, gathered at a community center on a Saturday night in March 2017. Maroney and LeShay were one of the pairs in attendance. When she was asked about inviting Maroney to the ball, LeShay said she knew “nobody else” more perfect than Mike to escort her to the event.
Speaking To The Crowd
Maroney drove all the way from Texas to take LeShay to her ball. On top of being able to escort the girl he once saved, he was also given the opportunity to address the ball attendees. He spoke to them about the day of the rescue. He said, “She [LeShay] just survived one of the most massive hurricanes in American history. If she’s smiling, I can smile too.”
Not Friends, But Family
Maroney attending the dance with LeShay was a hot subject for local media. One outlet that documented the dance was a NBC affiliate WXXV. During an interview with the station, LeShay said “He [Sgt. Mike Maroney] means a lot to me. He’s more like a family member than a friend.” Maroney expressed his love for LeShay in a different manner. He told WXXV, “If she needed a heart or a lung, I would give it to her.” Mike said. “That’s how important her hug and her family is to me.”
After this experience, LeShay has changed her mind about her future goals. She now would like to join the military. However, she is unsure of which branch she will choose. “I am proud of her no matter what she does and will support her in everything she does,” Maroney told People. “I think she understands service and I believe that she will do great things no matter what she chooses.” Maroney, however, isn’t just influencing LeShay. He is also helping other people.
Maroney Is Helping Others
Maroney had to retired from the Air Force due to injury, however, that hasn’t stopped him from serving his community in other ways. He not only does informational and motivational speeches around the country, but he also helps train people for battlefield jobs. He told People his motto on life. “Life in service to the planet is important whether serving in the military or as a teacher, nurse or volunteer,” he said. “Service makes life that much more appreciated.”
A Look Back
Mike Maroney’s experience with Hurricane Katrina lead him to places he would have never imagined. To summarize all his feelings about the events, he told People “I’ve rescued a lot of people, but there have also been a lot of people I couldn’t rescue. Life sometimes gets dark, knowing there are good people who love life and are happy, the resiliency that she had has been a strength for me.”