As Katrina wiped out New Orleans' communications infrastructure, panicky
rumors of violence in evacuation centers quickly filled the airwaves. The only
problem--few of the reports were true.
All along Hurricane Katrina's Evacuation Belt, in cities from Houston
to Baton Rouge to Leesville, Louisiana, the exact same rumors are spreading
faster than red ants at a picnic. The refugees from the United States' worst-ever
natural disaster, it is repeatedly said, are bringing with them the worst of
New Orleans' now-notorious lawlessness: looting, armed carjacking, and even
the rape of children.
"By Thursday," the Chicago Tribune's Howard Witt reported, "local
TV and radio stations in Baton Rouge...were breezily passing along reports of
cars being hijacked at gunpoint by New Orleans refugees, riots breaking out
in the shelters set up in Baton Rouge to house the displaced, and guns and knives
The only problem--none of the reports were true.
"The police, for example, confiscated a single knife from a refugee
in one Baton Rouge shelter," Witt reported. "There were no
riots in Baton Rouge. There were no armed hordes." Yet
the panic was enough for Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden to impose a
curfew on the city's largest shelter, and to warn darkly about "New Orleans
Even before evacuees could get comfy in Houston's Astrodome, rumors
were flying that the refugees had already raped their first victim, just like
that 7-year-old in the Superdome, or the babies in the Convention Center who
got their throats slit. Not only was the Astrodome rape invented out of whole
cloth, so, perhaps was the case reported 'round the globe of at least one prepubescent
being raped and murdered in New Orleans' iconic sports arena.
"We don't have any substantiated rapes," New Orleans
Police superintendent Edwin Compass said Monday, according to the Guardian.
"We will investigate if the individuals come forward." The British
paper further pointed out that, "While many claim they happened, no
witnesses, survivors or survivors' relatives have come forward. Nor
has the source for the story of the murdered babies, or indeed their bodies,
been found. And while the floor of the convention center toilets were
indeed covered in excrement, the Guardian found no corpses."
As Katrina wiped out New Orleans' communications infrastructure, and
while key federal officials repeatedly expressed less knowledge than cable television
reporters, panicky rumors quickly rushed in to fill the void. Many of them have
shared the exact same theme--unspeakable urban ultra-violence, perpetuated by
the overwhelmingly black population.
St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis issued a statement Monday that "Rumors
are flying and being repeated occasionally in the media that describe supposed
criminal actions in St. Tammany Parish. These rumors are NOT true." Police
superintendent Compass had to fend off accusations that his beleagured force
"stood by while women were raped and people were beaten."
The truth, whatever it may be, is clearly horrific enough, with just about
every eyewitness account from New Orleans mentioning the palpable menace from
crazed gangs of looters and ne'er-do-wells, especially after nightfall. Compass
himself told reporters on Thursday that 88 of his cops were beaten back into
a retreat by angry Convention Center refugees, forcing Mayor Ray Nagin to suspend
rescue operations in favor of restoring a semblance of order.
But the lies matter too. If federal government officials can't even
get their ass-covering justifications straight, let alone such non-trivial,
easy-to-discern matters as whether there are indeed thousands of water-deprived
refugees massed at a Convention Center, those stranded near the epicenter will
likely be starved for information that could literally save their lives.
"Complaints are still rampant in New Orleans about a lack of information,"
NBC Anchor Brian Williams wrote on his weblog, echoing one of the most familiar
complaints from the city.
"It's one of many running themes of the past week: There were no announcements
in the Superdome during the storm, none to direct people after the storm, no
official word (via bullhorn, leaflets or any other means) during the week-long,
on-foot migration (and eventual stagnation) that defined life in the downtown
section of the city for those first few days. One can't help but think that
a single-engine plane towing a banner over the city would have been immeasurably
helpful in both crowd and rumor control."
And it's entirely possible that, like the chimeric Baton Rouge hordes, exaggerations
about New Orleans' criminality affected policy, mostly by delaying rescue operations
and the provision of aid. Relief efforts ground to a halt last week
after reports circulated of looters shooting at helicopters, yet none of the
hundreds of articles I read on the subject contained a single first-hand confirmation
from a pilot or eyewitness. The suspension-triggering attack--on a
military Chinook attempting to evacuate refugees from the Superdome--was contested
by Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown, who told ABC News,
"We're controlling every single aircraft in that airspace and none
of them reported being fired on." What's more, when asked about
the attacks, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff replied:
"I haven't actually received a confirmed report of someone firing
on a helicopter."
I don't begrudge any helicopter pilot erring on the side of caution; the vehicle
is dangerous enough without a razor-thin margin for error. But a razor-thin
margin is precisely what the wretched residents of New Orleans have had for
nearly 10 days now, and too many of them have already succumbed. Incoming National
Guard troops, steeled for urban warfare, have been surprised to instead encounter
mostly docile and relieved stragglers.
Try as we might, it's almost impossible to avoid seeing any major event through
the lens of our own prejudices and worldview. France-bashers were ready to slam
Paris for being stingy about hurricane aid even before, you know, actually checking
to see whether it was true (it wasn't). My prior antipathy toward the Department
of Homeland Security has now hardened into something approaching activism. As
we cast about for blame to lay, and lessons to learn for the next catastrophe,
it's worth asking whether our haste to confirm our suspicions by believing the
worst prevented us from doing our best.