Hurricane horror stories

Why did false tales of rape, shootings and murder flood out of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina?

Published October 24, 2005 11:30AM (EDT)

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.

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.

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."

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."

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."

The miasma of fear was in fact predictable, says Patricia Turner, a scholar in African-American studies at the University of California at Davis who has researched how rumors proliferate. "The odor, lack of hygiene, the heat -- death comes with the same odor that apparently was in the air, just choking people in there," Turner says. Worse yet, she says, was the lack of information. "I think that human beings are inclined to create stories that satisfy a lack of news and closure to things." People have a set of norms they associate with worst-case scenarios, she says, including the breakdown of social order and acts of raw brutality. As rumors get passed along in such an atmosphere, people often "validate" what they've heard by claiming to have witnessed it themselves.

Lennie Echterling, an expert on crisis intervention and a professor of psychology at James Madison University, calls this phenomenon an "emotional contagion." In crisis situations, he says, people's suggestibility goes way up. According to Echterling, neurological studies have shown that when confronted with dangerous or disturbing circumstances, the amygdala, a neural structure in the brain strongly linked with emotions, takes over, and can defeat rational thinking and response. Echertling says a person looking at a poisonous snake at the zoo shows how this works: He or she will typically jump back in fear if the snake strikes, despite knowing that the reptile is safely behind a glass barrier.

But while the tales of mayhem and murder were spread by frightened evacuees, they were further perpetuated by the media itself, in a kind of feedback loop: According to Maj. Bush, those stuck inside the Superdome were also hearing the reports on AM radios they'd brought with them -- apparently conflating what was happening at the nearby convention center. After the crisis abated, officials confirmed that armed thugs had been largely in control of the convention center until the Arkansas National Guard arrived on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 2. Deputy Police Commissioner Randy Winn later confirmed that his SWAT unit went into the convention center about 10 times, responding to reports of gunshots, though they said they heard shots and saw muzzle flashes on only one occasion.

Maj. Bush said news organizations often generalized what was happening in the city. "Did it all probably get lumped together to where it got confused if it was heard over an AM radio?" he asked. "I'm sure it did."

The coverage of Katrina's aftermath raised the question for many of whether the fact that the population of stranded evacuees was overwhelmingly black helped unleash the flood of false stories. The editor of the Times-Picayune, Jim Amoss, told the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 27 that "if the dome and convention center had harbored large numbers of middle-class white people, it would not have been a fertile ground for this kind of rumor-mongering."

Turner says Amoss had a point, though she says the impact of class cannot be overlooked, as the vast majority of people stuck in the downtown centers were poor and had no other option but to land there. "The desperation, the poverty and the race of the evacuees" combined, Turner believes, made the media, and perhaps its audiences, more credulous about the atrocities.

Steve Rendall, senior analyst at media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said excessive focus on black looters in the immediate wake of the storm -- especially by Fox News -- served to equate African-Americans with crime and set the tone for later coverage. That made the stories of widespread violence at the convention center and Superdome "more believable and thus reportable for journalists," Rendall says.

As for the evacuees' role in the rumors, both Turner and Rendall point to African-Americans' long history in the South of experiencing racism and victimization -- including the Tuskegee experiments and the deliberate flooding of some of New Orleans' poorer parishes in 1927. The latter buoyed anti-black conspiracy theories after Hurricane Betsy submerged poor neighborhoods in 1965 -- areas like the Ninth Ward, which were also devastated by the fallout from Katrina this year.

At the height of the crisis in New Orleans -- from Wednesday, Aug. 31, to Friday, Sept. 2 -- newspapers, radio stations and TV channels were also filled with reports of rogue gunmen firing on rescue helicopters.

A Fox News report from Sept. 2 quoted an unidentified ambulance official who said a shot was fired at a military helicopter at the Superdome. "There are people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters," Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesan, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard, told Fox. Additionally, the Associated Press, CBS News, NBC News, MSNBC, CNN and the Los Angeles Times all reported as fact on at least one occasion that shots were being fired on helicopters, while a Washington Post article stated that "angry crowds have repeatedly shot at rescue crews."

According to Officer Austin Banks of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a 20-year-old resident of the Algiers district in the West Bank area of New Orleans was arrested on Sept. 5, after neighbors said they witnessed him firing at a helicopter. Federal authorities found two revolvers and a box of ammunition in his apartment, and the suspect has been charged with shooting at a military aircraft by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baton Rouge.

But according to military and Coast Guard officials, no other reports of helicopter shootings have been corroborated. Maj. Bush of the Louisiana Guard says that Task Force Eagle, the military command in charge of all the planes and helicopters that entered the New Orleans area, had no confirmed reports of people firing at aircraft. A civilian had told a guardsman that he'd witnessed a helicopter taking fire while approaching the Superdome, but the report turned out to be false. Likewise, Lt. Col. Edwards of the Arkansas Guard, which operated around the more volatile convention center, knew of no such incidents.

Capt. Bob Mueller, who was in charge of the Coast Guard's relief efforts in New Orleans, provided Salon with a similar account, saying there were no verified reports of anybody firing upon Coast Guard helicopters. And as Knight Ridder reported on Oct. 3, representatives from the Air Force and the Department of Homeland Security have also been unable to confirm a single incident of gunfire at helicopters.

Woods, of the Poynter Institute, says that because information in post-Katrina New Orleans was so difficult to verify, that made it all the more critical for reporters to press their interview subjects about the information they were providing. He credits the Times-Picayune staff, which managed to operate under extreme conditions, for continuing to report out stories of the aftermath -- including the ones they got wrong initially.

Thevenot says he was grateful for the opportunity to go back and correct the record. "Among the Picayune New Orleans team, we all heard far more outrageous tales of violence and death than we actually reported," he said. "Most of it stayed in our notebooks, unconfirmed and unpublished."

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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