Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest and certainly the most destructive hurricane to ever hit the United States. It caused $108 billion worth of damage, and sadly, around 1,833 people lost their lives in the hurricane and flooding that followed in late August 2005. Millions of people were left homeless in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.
Mike Maroney was an Air Force Para-Rescue Jumper who had just returned from a rescue mission in Afghanistan when Hurricane Katrina hit, and he was called to New Orleans in September 2005. He and his team spent many days moving from rooftop to rooftop, rescuing as many residents of the city as they could. At the time, he remembered wondering how many of these people would actually survive.
One bright and memorable moment among the sea of despair was a beautiful, little, pigtailed girl, just three-years-old, who gave Mike Maroney a huge, heartfelt hug after she and her family landed in his helicopter.
— WPXI (@WPXI) March 21, 2017
And today, twelve years after she was photographed during the rescue operation, this gorgeous little girl, who has now become a 14-year-old teenager, brought this proud U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant, who saved her life, to her school dance.
LaShay Brown became known as the “Katrina Girl” because of a photograph showing a broadly smiling three-year-old girl hugging Master Sergeant Mike Maroney who, with his team of specialist rescuers, saved her family from their flooded home.
The Independent reported that the award-winning photograph of LaShay Brown and Mike Maroney was featured on many magazine covers and became a symbol of the rescue mission in the wake of the terrible natural disaster.
And for Master Sergeant Mike Maroney, he carried the photograph around with him on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan because he felt such a bond with this little girl. At the same time, he was dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his many years spent in the Air Force.
— Breaking911 (@Breaking911) March 21, 2017
Two years ago, Mike Maroney launched a social media campaign using the hashtag #FindKatrinaGirl and, miraculously, in September 2015, these two people were reunited on the set of The Real TV show. Since that time, they have visited each other’s families and speak weekly via phone. LaShay has been so motivated by Mike that she’s joined the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, a program at Bay High School in Waveland, Mississippi, sponsored by the U.S. Armed Forces.
The Washington Post reported that on Saturday night in a community Center in Mississippi, dozens of teenagers dressed to the nines in their beautiful gowns and elegant suits for the Bay High School military ball. Among the beautiful girls was 14-year-old LaShay Brown, on the arm of her date, Air Force Master Sergeant Mike Maroney – the man who saved her life.
— Stacey Cato (@MsSippiQueen) March 20, 2017
For years, Maroney searched for the “Katrina Girl,” pleading with Oprah Winfrey and social media to help him but to no avail. Then five years later, he tried again, at which time 16-year-old Andrew Goard in Michigan saw his desperation and volunteered space on his Instagram account to help promote his search.
Andrew’s grandfather was in the military police in Vietnam, and his fascination with para-rescue jumpers led him to launch an Instagram page to honor them. Andrew decided to take on the cause himself because he believed that Mike Maroney had never really been thanked for his 18 years of service. All along, though, Maroney thought his chances of finding the little girl were very slim.
“I would love to get another hug and see how she’s doing. I’d love her to know that there isn’t a day I haven’t thought of her.”
The hashtag #FindKatrinaGirl fueled an enormous amount of interest in the story, and finally, Mike Maroney found LaShay in Waveland, Mississippi. Because LaShay was only three at the time of the rescue, she remembers very little, but her mother’s recollection was very vivid.
“I was crying because I was scared,” said Shawntrell Brown in 2015.
“That was the first time I was on a helicopter, the first time I was on a plane and the first time I ever left New Orleans. 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 LaShay was comforting me.”
Shawntrell could clearly see the water swallowing her hometown, but, on the other hand, LaShay was very calm.
On that day, Maroney remembers the little girl as fearless, excitedly pointing out her home and school from the helicopter. The hug that made headlines came later, at the airport, when they were safely back on the ground. The photographer gave him a copy later that night, and it wasn’t long before it was plastered on military coins, AT&T phone cards, and Burger King place mats.
— David DeBolt (@seaofstatic) April 1, 2015
Then, 10 years later, the photo appeared again on the cover of People magazine’s “American Heroes” collector’s edition after LaShay and the man who saved her life were reunited on The Real, where they recreated the hug photo.
Speaking through tears, Maroney told LaShay, “You have a beautiful smile and it stuck with me. You rescued me more than I rescued you.”
Since their reunion, the pair has formed a firm friendship, visiting each other regularly and speaking on the phone. Prior to their reunion, LaShay had wanted to be a lawyer, but now, speaking to People magazine about the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, she plans to join the military.
“It was very interesting and a challenge, 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.”
And when LaShay realized she had an opportunity to invite an escort to her military ball, there was no-one else she could think of except Mike Maroney. And so, on Saturday night, the two arrived at the community center with locked arms.
“If not for her hug and her smile on that day, my life would probably be a lot different.”
[Featured Image by David J. Phillip/AP Images]