Diplomat honored as Katrina hero

Robert “Bob” L. Hopkins doesn’t consider himself a hero for helping hundreds of foreign diplomatic personnel and thousands of storm victims during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, but many beg to differ.

“Multiple foreign consuls ascribed to him a telling and legendary compliment — ‘Bob is America,'” explained Ambassador Stephen J. Akard, who introduced Hopkins November 20 at the State Department as the third honoree of the department’s program Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy.

The program highlights those who display “intellectual, moral, physical courage … in service to America’s mission,” as Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said at the first event.

A former naval officer and Vietnam War veteran, Hopkins had only worked six months on the job at the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions (OFM) in Houston, Texas, when the hurricane wreaked havoc across the American southeastern seaboard.

Man and woman sitting onstage in front of large screen with projected images (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Hopkins and Ambassador Julieta Valls Noyes (right) in conversation during the Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy event (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

As the historic devastation unfolded, the State Department realized that it had never been tasked with assisting foreign nationals on American soil during a natural disaster.

They were quick to respond. On a regular day, OFM provides a wide range of services to foreign officials and consulates, like helping consuls obtain driver’s licenses and liaising with their countries’ governments. But when New Orleans flooded with seawater, OFM was tasked with ensuring the safety of all foreign officials as the Category 5 hurricane roiled the city.

OFM deployed Hopkins to New Orleans, Louisiana, where his instructions were simply to help however he could. This meant anything from leading the rescue of consuls who were trapped by floodwaters to wading through several of the 50 or so abandoned consulates to retrieve sensitive foreign documents — such as passports and international identity cards.

“When I first got engaged with Hurricane Katrina, I was actually thrown into the briar patch with no way out,” explained Hopkins. “One of the biggest surprises of my life was when the levees broke.”

While Hopkins worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of foreign nationals in the U.S., he credits his Katrina response team compatriots for responding just as diligently during the crisis.

“I’m up here to accept this honor on behalf of a whole lot of people,” said Hopkins. “Everybody put duty, honor, country first [during Katrina].”

This article is part of ongoing coverage of the Hero of U.S. Diplomacy series. Others include the stories of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Slater and World War I diplomats.