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Ten Years Later: Air Force Veteran Hasn't Lost Hope in Search for Iconic 'Katrina Kid'

Nearly five months since the United States Air Force Reserve launched the ambitious and heartstring-tugging Find Katrina Kid campaign, veteran Mike Maroney is still without leads.

"We haven't found her yet, but I think it's only a matter of time," Maroney, full of hope, told AccuWeather.

Ten years ago this month, the then-staff sergeant was photographed kneeling beside an unidentified little girl. Bearing a toothy grin, she had her arms thrown around his neck like she'd just been reunited with an old friend.

Not long after, the photo exploded into an iconic image of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, being featured in newspapers and magazines and on military place mats, phone cards and coins.

However, the reality of the moment was nothing like it seemed in the photograph. It was just six days after Katrina made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane in southeastern Louisiana. The storm caused the levee system in New Orleans to give way, leaving more than 80 percent of the city under water.

Maroney's crew was told to start packing as soon as the storm hit, and within 18 hours, he was on his way to serve in the aftermath of one of the deadliest hurricanes on record in the United States.

"The town was under water. The water was so high that the rooftops looked like stepping stones. So, no, I wasn't prepared nor had [I] any idea the destruction that we were going into," Maroney said.

"We just rolled right in and it was kind of like the Wild West. There were just helicopters everywhere and people were on roofs, and people in trees, and people on buildings, and everyone's just waving [at us]."

Between Aug. 31 and Sept. 10, United States Air Force helicopter crews rescued more than 4,000 people, sending some to safe shelter at the Superdome and Convention Center in New Orleans.

More than 26,000 displaced people were eventually evacuated to airports and bases outside of the disaster area.

Among the thousands was ‘Katrina Kid', the three- or four-year-old girl whom Maroney has been determined to find for nearly 10 years.

He had spotted the little girl and her family in the street, waving down the helicopter for help.

"They lowered me down in the hoist and I asked them, ‘Hey, are you guys doing alright? Are you ready to get out of here?' And they were like, yes please," Maroney recalls.

As Maroney and the little girl were hoisted up, she began pointing out identifiable landmarks below her.

"She was like ‘Hey, there's my house, there's my school' and she's just pointing everything out." Maroney said. "She had just been through this huge devastating storm and she's still got that smile on her face. She was either blissfully ignorant or really strong and resilient."

The day had begun as a rough one for the staff sergeant, who had accidentally swallowed contaminated water three days prior.

"I was having some really big stomach issues, and I wasn't sleeping very well but I wasn't going to miss my chance," Maroney said of participating in disaster relief on American soil.

The early portion of Maroney's day began with the rescue of a man amid a heart attack, the airlift of a woman who had been in a coma for many years and finally the rescue of "Katrina Kid."

The young girl's mother was visibly shaken during the flight.

"The helicopter was real loud and shaking and things are going on, and the girl starts rubbing her on the back and saying ‘Its okay, Mom, it's okay. We're safe now,'" Maroney remembers, adding that her resiliency was rubbing off on him.

The girl and her family were transported to Louis Armstrong International Airport before saying goodbye to the crew.

"So, when I went to go pick her up off that helicopter she wrapped me up in that hug and everything just stopped," he said. "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."

But despite best efforts from the Air Force Reserve to locate her this March, the girl's identity remains a mystery.

"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 said.

If you recognize this girl, please email Air Force Times Managing Editor Richard Sandza at rsandza@militarytimes.com.

Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Jillian MacMath at macmathj@accuweather.com, follow her on Twitter @Jillian_MacMath or Google+. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.