All it took was one hug. Master Sergeant Mike Maroney saved the life, of at the time toddler, LeShay Brown, and her family from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. LeShay showed her affection by embracing the Sergeant in a big hug. That hug would lead to something neither parties expected.
Hurricane Katrina is one of the worst natural disasters that has ever hit the United States. Many factors and events led to a complete change of landscape both physically and culturally in the Gulf Coast. Thousands of people, men, women, and children, were greatly affected by the storm, including LeShay Brown and her family. Luckily, her story has a happy ending.
A Storm Is Brewing
On August 25, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit the Florida coast as a category 1 storm. With winds up to 80 miles per hour, Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency. By the following day, Hurricane Katrina had picked up intensity, and was now considered a category 2. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency and the White House sent National Guard troops to the Gulf Coast. Unfortunately, no one could prevent the damage this storm would cause.
Katrina Heads To New Orleans
The decisions made the following days, many say caused more damage than was necessary. On August 27, 2005 New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin started a voluntary evacuation of metro-area residents. Unfortunately, that decision was met with Katrina getting angrier. The storm became classified as a category 5, the following morning at 7am, with winds up to 160 miles per hour.
Mandatory Evacuation Ordered
A few hours later, Nagin ordered the mandatory evacuation for New Orleans residents. He also made shelters as a “last resort” for stranded residents. One shelter was the city’s professional football arena, the Superdome. It was estimated 25,000-30,000 people sought refuge there. Unfortunately, it was too difficult for many families to get to the Superdome and they were stranded in their homes, hoping to survive the storm.
It Was Too Late
When the mandatory evacuation order was issued for New Orleans, it was too late for many to leave the city. Approximately one-fifth of the city did not have a car and was unable to flee. The Brown family was one of those families that was forced to stay in their home.
Once the storm passed through New Orleans, the city was completely devastated. Water filled the streets and homes of residents. Former U.S President George Bush declared an Emergency Disaster for the area. Sadly, 80% of the city was submerged in water with levels as high as 20 feet. Residents were angry and violence began. Officers were sent to the city to stop the violence as well as begin saving those that were stranded in the floods.
The Browns Were Stranded
LeShay Brown, and her family, was one that chose to stay in their home. Pararescue specialist Mike Maroney was patrolling above when he noticed the Browns pleading for help to escape the submerged city. Maroney rescued the Brown family. However, neither the Browns nor Maroney could predict what would happen next.
Maroney Saved Many
Flying over New Orleans that day, Maroney was not only working on orders, but he felt morally obligated to be out there helping those hurt by the storm. That day, he helped saved over 140 people from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. However, it was the rescue of the Brown family that made the biggest impact on him, not only that day but for many years to come.
One Hug Changed Everything
Maroney worked with his fellow officers to save the Brown family from the devastation. Once the whole family made it to safety, LeShay did something completely unwarranted, shortly after her rescue. With all her excitement about being rescued, LeShay threw her arms around the Sergeant. No one could have known what impact that hug would cause.
A Rescue Retold
Maroney knew the little girl he had just saved was special, even though he did not know her name. He recalled the rescue in an interview with the Air Force Times. He said that girl was fearless. As the rescuers, the little girl, and her family were flying above the devastation, she pointed out her home and school from inside the helicopter. It was at the airport, once the family was safely back on the ground, that the little girl embraced her rescuer.
Maroney Writes About The Rescue
Maroney kept a journal in order to help remember all the things he had done in his life. He wrote about the day he rescued the little girl. In a video for the Air Force Times, he read his journal aloud. He wrote “Picked up the cutest little girl today. Gave me the biggest hug, and I melted.” The hug truly brightened his day.
She Gave Him The Strength To Continue
The hug was more than just a hug to Maroney. In an interview with Airman, he said “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. On that day, it was exactly what I needed.” That little girl had given him so much strength.
Put Him In La-La Land
Maroney remembers how hard that whole week was. While searching above the flooded waters, he saw such horrors and it created a sense of depression. However, after picking up the Browns, he felt completely renewed. “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 Forever Captured
At the time of the rescue, a press photographer was there and was able to capture the moment LeShay embraced her rescuer. The photo was printed in magazines and circled the globe, even winning awards. Maroney was also given a copy to keep for himself. Maroney took the photograph with him everywhere including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Picture Goes Global
The picture of the sergeant and the little girl hugging became a symbol of the rescue effort, after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Not only was Maroney given a copy, but it was soon plastered on military coins, Burger King place mats and AT&T phone cards. (It would once again regain public recognition after being printed, 10 years later, on the cover of People‘s “American Heroes” collector’s edition.)
The Picture Meant So Much
Maroney suffered from PTSD, therefore, having the photograph to remind him of that special moment while on deployment meant so much to him. He would look at the photo in hard times and he said it would always give him comfort. He knew he would one day have to reconnect with that little girl to thank her for that one moment of kindness.
The Search Begins
Nearly 5 years after the iconic hug, Maroney knew it was time to find the girl he had once saved. He decided to make a post on social media and he even tweeted at Oprah. Unfortunately, his first post was unsuccessful with only 42 likes and Oprah did not respond. However, he did not give up hope and posted again. The second time around, the post went viral.
Social Media Success
Maroney’s original efforts on social media came out empty handed, but he kept trying and posted again and again. In the meantime, there was a teenager in Michigan, named Andrew Goard, who was fascinated with pararescuers. So much so, he had a Instagram page honoring the jumpers, which had over 3,000 followers. Goard got wind of the campaign and posted to his Instagram. Due to the large amount of followers, the campaign began to catch and was eventually found by the Air Force Times. The Air Force Times wrote an article on the search and the story went viral.
Maroney’s second social media post, which he posted 10 years after the original meeting, to find the little girl went viral. Goard had created the hashtag “FindKatrinaGirl.” Luckily, the post and story was being shared so much TV producers, of the show “The Real”, saw it and helped with the search. They found the “Katrina Girl” and informed Maroney that he would be able to meet this girl in only a short time.
Producers Make Connections
“The Real” is a panel show where women discuss all of their life experiences. Of course, the producers of the show were emotionally touched by Maroney’s story. But, ultimately, they knew the meeting on the show would bring great ratings. Therefore, after the “Katrina Girl” was found. The producers invited both the girl and Maroney on the show to finally reunite.
Who Is Katrina Girl?
At the time of the rescue, the little toddler was only 3-years-old. Ten years had passed since the rescue so this little girl could be anywhere. Luckily, with the help of social media and a TV production crew the search was easily completed. The little girl was now a 13-year-old young woman entering high school and living in Mississippi. Her name was LeShay Brown.
It had been 10 years since Sergeant Mike Maroney had begun his search to find the Katrina Girl. When producers of “The Real” told him he was going to meet her, he was completely overwhelmed and shocked. “I can’t wait to meet her to tell her how important she is,” he told People magazine. He had been playing out for years, in his head, what he would say to this little girl, and now he finally could do it.
She Didn’t Know He Was Looking
As LeShay was very young when the original picture was taken, she does not have much memory of the hug. However, her mother remembers it well. Despite not having much memory of the event, LeShay was still very excited to hear the news Maroney was searching 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!” Luckily, that picture would resurface and go viral once again.
LeShay Brown and Mike Maroney were invited onto the set of “The Real” in September 2015. After carrying the picture with him over many years for comfort, Maroney was finally able to thank the little girl who once hugged him. Before LeShay was brought out on stage, Maroney talked to the show hosts about why LeShay’s hug was so inspiring. He said “If she’s strong enough to handle this, I can handle this.”
It’s Time To Meet
Of course, the hosts had the audience and viewers wait just a little longer. One of the hosts summarized the tale one last time before introducing the two. She told everyone that Maroney had no idea the hug was even being photographed. He continued with how the hug “meant a lot.” A brief introduction of LeShay she was brought out on stage.
LeShay walked out looking completely different than her former self. She was now much taller but still just as beautiful. She nervously pushed her hair out of her face as she walked towards the hosts and her rescuer. After giving a hug to two of the hosts, she finally reach Maroney and they embraced for the first time since her rescue.
After 10 years of searching, it was finally time for Maroney to thank LeShay. Maroney’s first words to her were described how powerful her one token of kindness was. As he held back tears, Maroney told LeShay, “Your hug, it helped me through hard days, and rough days. You rescued me more than I rescued you.”
A Tearful Reunion
Maroney’s and LeShay’s reunion was filled with hugs and tears. Maroney later told WLOX “If not for her hug and her smile on that day, my life would probably be a lot different.” Therefore, he was beyond overjoyed to finally met LeShay in person and explain to her how that one hug made a huge impact on him.
LeShay’s Mother Recalls The Rescue
LeShay’s mother, Shantrell Brown (pictured far left), recalled the rescue to People. “I was crying because I was scared,” she said. Due to the circumstances as well as it being her first time on helicopter, she was understandably frightened. Shantrell said the whole time LeShay remained calm and she comforted her, rather than the other way around. Maroney agreed with her recollection and commented how brave LeShay was during such a scary time.
LeShay’s Mother Tells All
In an interview with People, Shantrell said “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 was a mother of 5 children. Therefore, fearing for her children’s safety and future was at the forefront of her mind. But, of course, LeShay was brave and openly accepting what may lie ahead.
LeShay Was Always Special
LeShay’s mother always knew her daughter was special. However, after seeing the reunion, she never realized how much of an impact LeShay had made. In an interview with Airman, Shantrell Brown said “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 LeShay and her smile and hug, I never knew that could mean so much to a person.”
A Wish Come True
Maroney, ever since he received the picture, had wanted to meet and thank the Brown family. After the reunion, Maroney told the Browns 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 overjoyed to see the family had bounced back from the terrible disaster they had once faced.
A Dream Fulfilled
Maroney always wanted to give back to LeShay and her family, for that brief moment of joy that gave him a lifetime of comfort. They show was able to fulfill his wish by giving the family a $10,000 check. LeShay’s mother was also offered a car. However, she turned down the offer so Maroney could also get a check for $10,000. Soon after, Maroney headed to Mississippi, with his sons, to meet the Browns at their Waveland, Mississippi home.
How Did They Spend The Money?
Shantrell also truly showed the love in her heart by giving away the car, as that is exactly what she intended to buy with the money along with a much desired iPhone for LeShay. Maroney planned to use the money to catch up on some debt he had gained. However, his first purchase was a chocolate milkshake for LeShay because she had told him she loves ice cream.
After The Show
Their meeting on “The Real” was only the beginning of this newfound connection. After the show, Maroney and LeShay stayed in touch. Soon after the show was filmed, Maroney told People “We’ve already been texting, checking in on each other, and talking quite a bit.” He was excited to continue to learn more about LeShay and her life.
A Friendship Begins
Only shortly after the show, Maroney visited the Brown family in Mississippi and People reported he even taught her how to swim. The two now have weekly phone calls to talk about what’s going on in their daily lives. Maroney was also given honorary citizenship from Waveland Mayor Mike Smith.
With the high amount of publicity on Maroney’s and LeShay’s story, after their appearance on “The Real”, the two received a lot of attention from the public. Shantrell told People, “LeShay is famous! Everyone has been coming up to us every day, asking us about it.” LeShay, on the other head had a different opinion on the matter, “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to run bleachers when I go back to school because I missed practices.”
Due to the strong bond the pair has, as well as the positive influence Maroney has had on LeShay, LeShay decided to join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, also known as the JROTC. The 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.” LeShay joined the branch at Bay High School in Waveland, Mississippi.
Following In His Footsteps
LeShay commented to People about her choice 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.” Mike had already helped her so much and he was excited to see LeShay make this next step in her life.
Maroney and LeShay had a bond that could not be broken. Therefore, when it came time for LeShay to invite someone to be her escort to her JROTC ball, she knew exactly who she was going to ask – Sergeant Mike Maroney. Maroney told People, “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.”
Many teenagers, that were part of the JROTC program, and their dates, gathered at a Mississippi community center on a Saturday night in March 2017. Two of those attendees were Maroney and LeShay. When recalling her decision to invite Maroney, she knew “nobody else” more perfect than Maroney to be her date. The two arrived at the dance with locked arms and danced the night away.
Addressing The Crowd
Maroney drove all the way from Texas to attend the ball in Mississippi. Minus spending time with LeShay, he also addressed the crowd and recalled the two’s experience during Hurricane Katrina. Speaking to the attendees, Maroney spoke about his thoughts the day of the rescue, “She [LeShay] just survived one of the most massive hurricanes in American history. If she’s smiling, I can smile too.”
Friendship Means So Much
Various news outlets were at the dance to capture the moment. LeShay and Maroney both spoke to local TV station and NBC affiliate WXXV. “He means a lot to me. He’s more like a family member than a friend,” LeShay said in an interview. Maroney expressed how important LeShay was to him in a different way. “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.”
LeShay plans to join the military someday. However, she is not quite sure of which branch she will choose. 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.” However, LeShay isn’t the only person Maroney has helped.
Maroney Continues To Help Others
Maroney retired from the Air Force due to injury, however, that’s not stopping him from serving his country in other ways. He speaks to people around the country as well as helps train people preparing for battlefield jobs. He told People his outlook on life, “Life in service to the planet is important whether serving in the military or as a teacher, nurse or volunteer. Service makes life that much more appreciated.”
A Look Back
Mike Maroney summarized his whole experience with the Brown family. 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.”