Air Force veteran finds iconic 'Katrina Kid' after a decade of heartfelt searching

How Hurricane Katrina Changed Pet Rescue Forever

By AccuWeather

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's calamitous effects, an image of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Mike Maroney locked in a heartwarming embrace with a young girl he encountered during rescue operations became a symbol of hope and optimism.

For the last decade, Maroney has been determined to meet the child he hugged in the iconic photo. In March, the Air Force Times launched the "Find Katrina Kid" campaign to help Maroney reconnect with the little girl.

Just last month, leading up to the 10th anniversary of Katrina, Maroney remained hopeful in his quest and told AccuWeather it was "only a matter of time," before they came in contact.

See related images of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts around the world:

Katrina 10 year: Relief efforts around the country/world
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Air Force veteran finds iconic 'Katrina Kid' after a decade of heartfelt searching
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2002: Sean Penn (center) helps an elderly man stranded by Hurricane Katrina through the floodwaters to safety on Napoleon St. in New Orleans. The Oscar-winning actor and political activist managed to reach several people who had been trapped in their homes since the killer storm hit Monday. Penn, who was accompanied by a crew of helpers, brought the victims to dry land - and gave them cash as well. Asked what he was doing in the disaster zone, Penn said, 'Whatever I can do to help.' (Photo by Craig Warga/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Marine Lance Corpral Anthony Roberts helps a young boy find his way to buses that are being used to evacuate residents in New Orleans, 01 September 2005, in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The Houston Astrodome in Texas was no longer accepting hurricane evacuees from New Orleans on Thursday, redirecting them instead to other cities and shelters, local police told CNN. AFP PHOTO / James NIELSEN (Photo credit should read JAMES NIELSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 02: Tia Clark (R) of the Executive Office of Mayor Tony Williams helps to distribute supplies to the buses that will be sent to New Orleans to evacuate hurricane victims to Washington September 2, 2005 outside the DC National Guard Armory in Washington, DC. The government of Washington, DC, has sent ten buses down to New Orleans to help evacuate about 400 hurricane victims so that officials of New Orleans can focus on the city's rebuilding. The evacuees will be housed at the DC National Guard Armory with food service and shower facilities. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
PEARLINGTON, MS - SEPTEMBER 3: Justene Audler helps to deliver ice in the rural area on September 3, 2005 in Pearlington, Mississippi. Residents of Pearlington didn't receive aid for four days after Hurricane Katrina struck the region on August 29. (Photo by Ross Taylor/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA: Cuban doctors listen to a speech by Cuban President Fidel Castro in Havana, 04 September 2005, as he extends his offer to send 1,100 Cuban doctors with two backpacks of medicine each to help people affected by Hurricane Katrina in the southern US. Castro earlier said in a radio and television address that some 100 doctors could board a flight to Houston, Texas, as soon as 09 September and 1,000 could arrive by the 10th and 11th. During his speech Castro said that US authorities had yet to inform the Cuban goverment of their decision yet. AFP PHOTO/Adalberto ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
DALLAS-SEPTEMBER 5: Several agencies came out to help the evacuees from New Orleans at Reunion Arena September 5, 2005 in Dallas, Texas. Jobs are going to be very important since most of the evacuees will be in Texas for several months if not longer. With an estimated 1.5 million people displaced due to the devastation along the Gulf Coast, Texas has been taking in evacuees from Hurricane Katrina which struck the region August 29. (Photo by Lawrence Jenkins/Getty Images)
D'IBERVILLE, MS - SEPTEMBER 06: Water is available at a relief distribution site September 6, 2005 in D'Iberville, Mississippi. The death toll stands at 160 in Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with about 400,000 still without power. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
BILOXI, MS - SEPTEMBER 6: In this handout provided by the U.S. Navy, Beach Master Seaman Jabril Adams, assigned to Beach Master Unit Two (BMU-2), directs a Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC), loaded with Marine Corps heavy equipment onto a beach September 6, 2005 near Biloxi, Mississippi. The Marines are using multipurpose utility trucks, forklifts and front-end loaders to clean hurricane Katrina debris out of the Biloxi streets. (Photo by Michael Sandberg/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
GULF OF MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 6: In this handout provided by the U.S. Navy, sailors aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), stage supplies, food, and water on a deck-edge elector prior to being flown ashore to aid Hurricane Katrina relief efforts September 6, 2005 in the Gulf of Mexcio. The Navy's involvement in the Hurricane Katrina humanitarian assistance operations is led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in conjunction with the Department of Defense. (Photo by Eric S. Garst/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
BILOXI, MS - SEPTEMBER 6: In this handout from the U.S. Navy, a handmade sign stands on the beach where the U.S. Navy and Marines set up a main staging point for relief efforts in teh aftermath of Hurricane Katrina September 6, 2005 in Biloxi, Mississippi. (Photo by Michael Sandberg/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
BATON ROUGE - SEPTEMBER 7: Orlando Magic Assistant General Manager Otis Smith and Tamia Hill unload relief supplies at the airport September 7, 2005 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Magic arrived to deliver supplies and lend disaster relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2005 NBAE (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 7: Houston Rockets player Tracy McGrady helps unload a van full of supplies for the hurricane Katrina victims at the Houston Rockets Hopefest September 7, 2005 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2005 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 9: (L-R) Murriel Page, Kaayla Chones and Delisha Milton-Jones of the Washington Mystics help collect money for the Team Up DC/Hurricane Relief efforts September 9, 2005 outside RFK Stadium in Washington, DC. All donations will be donated to the American Red Cross. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2005 NBAE (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NBAE via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 09: Def Jam President Jay-Z (L) and Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs hold a check for one million dollars that they will donate to the American Red Cross backstage during 'S.O.S. (Saving OurSelves): The BET Relief Telethon' to benefit the victims of hurricane Katrina at the BET Studios September 9, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)
HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 11: Former NBA player and current co-host of the 'Best Damn Sport Show Period' John Salley holds up signage for Kenny Smith's Hurricane Katrina relief NBA charity game, September 11, 2005 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER:User expressly acknowleges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2005 NBAE (Photo by Chris Graythen/NBAE/Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: Former Sacramento Kings, Vlade Divac (L), helps load donated canned food along with whatever anyone wanted to donate to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina at his restaurant, L'Image, on September 12, 2005 in the Pavilions shopping center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly aknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2005 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 16: Singer Kelly Osbourne, Sean 'Diddy' Combs and Nicole Richie attend the 'Fashion For Relief' fashion show, with proceeds going to aid Hurricane Katrina victims, during Olympus Fashion Week at Bryant Park September 16, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 17: Professional mile runner, Alan Webb from Reston Va., and Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., wait for the start of the Gulf Coast Relief 5k in Alexandria, Va., Saturday. The race attracted nearly 4,000 participants and raised over $150,000 for Hurricane Katrina victims. (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - SEPTEMBER 19: Domino's Pizza worker Lyle Landry puts a pizza into an oven inside a small tralier September 19, 2005 in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. Mike Schlater, a Domino's Pizza franchise owner, came down from Indiana to hand out free pizzas to law enforcement officials, relief worker and clean up crews in appreciation of all the work they have done during the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - SEPTEMBER 26: American Red Cross volunteer Mary Breslin of Michigan helps New Orleans resident Earl Davis carry food and cleaning supplies back to his car after he returned to his home in the Algiers District for the first time since Hurricane Katrina September 26, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Monday reopened Algiers to residents. Business owners were allowed into Algiers and several other districts to resume cleanup from Hurricane Katrina that was interrupted when Hurricane Rita passed by the area. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - OCTOBER 15: Actor Ashton Kutcher (L) bids on an item as his wife, actress Demi Moore, looks on at the launch of the 'uBid for Hurricane Relief' charity auction and benefit at the Empire Ballroom October 15, 2005 in Las Vegas, Nevada. All of the proceeds from the auction will be split evenly between the Brett Favre Fourward Foundation, the RockWorks Foundation (in association with Kutcher) and the Child Welfare League of America. The organizations will use money raised to help areas in the Gulf Coast devastated by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. The online part of the auction continues on through November 1, 2005. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 22: Musical artist Gwen Stefani records her contribution to the disaster relief charity single, a cover of the Sir Eric Clapton ballad 'Tears In Heaven', at a Los Angeles studio on January 22, 2005 in Los Angeles, California. Other stars contributing to the single include Sir Elton John, Velvet Revolver, Andrea Bocelli, Robbie Williams, Rod Stewart, Pink, Ozzie and Kelly Osbourne, Gavin Rossdale, Robert Downey Jr., Phil Collins, Josh Groban and Aerosmith's Steve Tyler. The single - which was released on October 18, 2005 for download exclusively on 7 Digital, is an initiative of Sharon Osbourne, and proceeds will go to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina, survivors of the devastating tsunami in southeast Asia last December and children affected by emergencies throughout the world. (Photo by Getty Images)
BILOXI, MS - AUGUST 29: Volunteers assist in the rebuilding of Beck Park to commemorate the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2006 in Biloxi, Mississippi. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the term and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2006 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
Tammy Pescatelli during OPERATION DOGGY DROP Benefit to Aid the Pets Devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita at House Of Blues in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/WireImage for MRC PR)
Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns scrapes paint off of a house in the East Section of New Orleans as players help participate in the NBA Cares Project during the 2008 NBA All-Star Weekend February 15, 2008 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The one-day project is to help rebuild homes that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina. AFP PHOTO/TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 17: Taye Diggs helps a woman carry her clean laundry to her car after folding and packing laundry at Tide?s Mobile Laundromat in New Orleans December 17, 2007. The Tide CleanStart truck is a mobile laundromat created in 2005 to provide much needed, free laundry services to families in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. Over the past two years, Tide has visited the area four times and washed more than 20,000 loads of laundry for Gulf Coast families. (Photo by Skip Bolen/

Now, his persistent efforts have come to fruition.

In a story released Wednesday by People Magazine, Maroney, who is now an Air Force Reservist, said he has found the girl, identified as LeShay Brown, 13, of Waveland, Mississippi. The two are expected to reunite later this month in New Orleans.

"I can't wait to meet her to tell her how important she is," he said in an interview with People.
As it turned out, word of the campaign, which had circulated through news outlets and social media with the #FindKatrinaGirl hashtag, made its way to the community where Brown lived, the magazine reports.

"The whole neighborhood told us they saw LeShay on the news and everybody told us someone was looking for her," LeShay's mother, Shawntrell, told People.

Soon thereafter, LeShay contacted Maroney. LeShay told People: "I was excited that he was looking for me for such a long time."

Despite being in the middle of a catastrophe, LeShay's resilience and bright smile has always stuck with Maroney. After LeShay and her mother had been rescued and were being transported by helicopter to Louis Armstrong International Airport, Maroney said the girl was comforting her mother, who was visibly shaken, and remembered her saying, "It's okay, Mom, it's okay. We're safe now."

Maroney never got the chance to say goodbye after they parted ways at the airport, but now he can finally tell her how much she meant to him.

"I want to let her know what she's done for me, and that hug was very important, and that I think about her and her family," Maroney told AccuWeather.

"That hug could've been 10 seconds or 10 hours, I don't know, but everything was good at that moment and they just happened to get a picture of it. I got pretty lucky."

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