Katrina Cock-Ups Exaggerated Stories of Hurricane Chaos in New Orleans

The reports coming out of New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were shocking. Stories of murder, rape, and relief helicopters being fired upon raced around the world in the form of breathless headlines. Problem is, most of them were wrong.

By Aaron Kinney


Workers on the roof of the Superdome in New Orleans in October. The stadium became infamous after Hurricane Katrina. Much of the violence ascribed to the Superdome never took place.
REUTERS

Workers on the roof of the Superdome in New Orleans in October. The stadium became infamous after Hurricane Katrina. Much of the violence ascribed to the Superdome never took place.

By the time Brian Thevenot, a reporter for the Times-Picayune, arrived at the New Orleans convention center on Monday, Sept. 5, the makeshift emergency shelter had achieved mythic status as a place where unspeakable crimes had been committed. Police Chief Eddie Compass had told the media that people were being raped and beaten inside. The New York Times had reported that evacuees witnessed seven dead bodies lying on the floor, and a 14-year-old girl who had been raped. Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and other television news channels had repeated stories of rape and murder there.

The convention center was empty when Thevenot arrived, except for about 250 members of the Arkansas National Guard and other rescue officials in the immediate area. The last evacuees had been bused out over the weekend. Thevenot interviewed guardsmen, who showed him four bodies that had been deposited inside a food service entrance of the building. "[Mikel] Brooks and several other guardsmen said they had seen between 30 and 40 bodies in the convention center's freezer," Thevenot reported in the Times-Picayune the following day, adding that Brooks told him one of the bodies was a "7-year-old girl with her throat cut."

Lt. Col. John Edwards, the commander of Brooks' unit, told Salon he first heard of the Times-Picayune story about two weeks later. "This was news to us," Edwards said of the alleged dozens of bodies in the freezer, which were never found. Only four bodies were discovered inside after the convention center was evacuated, and only one of them was a suspected homicide, according to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Plain false

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina left the American media with its biggest story since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Some reporters, including CNN's Anderson Cooper, earned praise for challenging equivocating public officials and a slow government response that left thousands stranded in desperate conditions. But the media also displayed shortcomings of its own: Two of the most prominent and disturbing types of stories from the New Orleans disaster zone -- violent criminals committing atrocities inside the two main refugee centers downtown, and rogue gunmen firing at rescue helicopters -- turned out to be wildly exaggerated, and in many cases plain false.

Even today, questions remain about various incidents, and why the unconfirmed horror stories were treated as fact and gained such wide currency. It is clear, however, that the media was only the last link -- if the most influential one -- in a chain reaction that led the world to believe gang rape, rampant shootings and infanticide were fast compounding the city's devastation. Many of the overblown reports trace back through poorly informed public officials, to overworked police officers and national guardsmen, to frightened evacuees themselves. The flooded city of New Orleans, experts say, was hit with a perfect storm of conditions in which fear, despair and wild rumors, like a contagious disease, can thrive. Latent racism, some suggest, further distorted the picture of devastation and chaos presented around the world.

Lt. Col. Edwards says he conducted a review around Sept. 16, interviewing every member of the Guard who was on patrol Sept. 5. Brooks and the other guardsmen claimed that they never told anyone they had actually seen bodies in the freezer, but rather that they'd heard other emergency personnel talking about it in a food line set up for police, guardsmen and other rescue workers outside Harrah's New Orleans Casino. Edwards invited Thevenot to talk with the guardsmen again, and on Sept. 26, the Times-Picayune published a follow-up report, co-written by Thevenot. It clarified that the paper's initial report about events at the convention center -- picked up by media worldwide -- had been wrong, as had been other accounts of unchecked mob violence around the city.

The New Orleans Convention Center was not an easy place to be in the days following Hurricane Katrina. But it also wasn't as violence-ridden as it was made out to be.
AP

The New Orleans Convention Center was not an easy place to be in the days following Hurricane Katrina. But it also wasn't as violence-ridden as it was made out to be.

Thevenot was one of the few Picayune staffers who had remained in New Orleans from the time Katrina hit, working in what he describes as "stone-age conditions." He and other journalists had been working up to 16-hour days without showers or fresh changes of clothes, and had to dictate a number of their stories to editors in Baton Rouge over phone lines that worked only sporadically.

"We worked, as we now know, amid a swirl of misinformation," Thevenot says. He says he pressed the guardsmen to show him the bodies in the freezer, but that they wouldn't permit him access. "None of us had access to official, authoritative sources on most subjects we reported until days after the storm. Even some of those official sources proved unreliable, as they worked in the same swirl of rumor as we did."

Reporters were reliant on uncorroborated sources

Keith Woods, dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says one reason that stories from New Orleans turned out to be wrong was that reporters were unusually reliant on uncorroborated information from individual sources, whether government officials, soldiers or evacuees. "For the most part the structures that might undergird accurate reporting were often literally underwater," Woods says.

But in the many cases in which the media repeated accounts of atrocities as fact -- without noting that they were unconfirmed -- more could have been done to accurately inform audiences. Reporters, editors and anchors, says Woods, should have been more forceful about asking, "How do you know that?" -- and at the very least have made sure the public heard the answer to that question.

The tales of mayhem from the Superdome, which had been turned into a massive refugee center, were also erroneous. On Sept. 1, CNN ran a report on its Web site quoting an evacuee there who spoke of "people simply dragging corpses into corners." "They have quite a few people running around here with guns," CNN quoted the unidentified man as saying. "You got these young teenage boys running around up here raping these girls."

By Sept. 6, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" aired interviews with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and police Chief Eddie Compass, who repeated accounts of utter depredation as fact, from which they would later backpedal. The show also featured correspondent Lisa Ling talking to unidentified evacuees who had fled to nearby Metairie, La.; they told Ling there were shootings inside the Superdome and dead bodies on the ground. "There were boys waiting in the bathroom for the children," one unidentified woman said, "and they'd have -- they raped the children, have sex with them. One of the girls they raped, then they killed her."

None were murder victims

But according to members of the Louisiana National Guard who were present at the Superdome throughout the crisis, none of these atrocities was verified to have taken place. The guardsmen checked evacuees into the Superdome starting Sunday, Aug. 28, and patrolled the facility until the last evacuees were bused out on Sept. 4. Though isolated cases of assault or rape could remain difficult to verify, there was no pervasive lawlessness. According to Maj. Ed Bush, a Guard public affairs officer who was there from start to finish, no gang members were running around with guns, and no shots were ever fired, except for one instance in which a guardsman accidentally shot himself during a scuffle in a darkened locker room. Of the six people that died there, according to Maj. Bush and other reports, none were murder victims.

"Trust me, we would have known," Bush said, regarding the reports of rampant gunfire. The reaction from the crowd, he says, "would have been instantaneous, [triggering] massive panic."

The rumors swirling around the Superdome forced the guardsmen to expend a good deal of energy dispelling the tales of rape and murder, Bush says. He emphasized that the vast majority of evacuees there were "very well behaved." People would rush up to him and ask, "Don't you know there's people being killed in the bathroom? What are you going to do about it?"

"It's hard to believe that in one building you could have such a fear of the unknown," Bush says. "It's almost like the boogeyman was everywhere."

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