In Katrina's Wake, Inaccurate Rumors Sullied Victims

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By Donna Britt
Friday, September 30, 2005

Most people learn the recipe for rumor in grade school:

Take one heaping helping of fear. Mix it with smaller portions of opportunism, isolation and/or resentment. Add a dash of human nature.

Voilà.

So why am I frustrated by reports that media accounts of post-Hurricane Katrina mayhem in New Orleans -- the countless killings, piles of bodies and profusion of rapes -- were greatly exaggerated?

Communications between journalists and their subjects were often spotty. Thousands who crowded into the Superdome and the Convention Center were cut off from the world, abandoned by their government, and had barely escaped death. Most had loved ones whose fates were unknown.

Hungry, thirsty, filthy and sweltering, those citizens' misery escalated as the hours passed and as the "bad apples" among them -- including untreated drug addicts and known troublemakers -- misbehaved with impunity.

Could rumor have found a better breeding ground?

On Monday, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that inflated body counts, unsubstantiated rapes and alleged sniper attacks are among the "scores of myths . . . rated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials," including Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who told millions on "Oprah" about survivors in the Superdome "for five days watching . . . hooligans killing people, raping people."

Horror stories abounded: a dead baby in a trash can. Hundreds of corpses stacked in the basement of the Superdome, which "morphed into this mythical place where the most unthinkable deeds were being done," Maj. Ed Bush, a spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard, told the Los Angeles Times, one of many media outlets that reported unverified rumors.

Louisiana officials this week said that 10 bodies were recovered from the Superdome. (Four were brought in from the street. Four died from natural causes. Another body was a drug overdose; another was an apparent suicide.) Of Louisiana's 841 recorded Katrina-related deaths, four are identified as gunshot victims -- two of whom were found in the Superdome and the Convention Center.

But forget New Orleans -- awful suppositions dogged Katrina survivors across the region. The Shreveport Times reported that "rumors of looting and violent crime sprees spread by the hour" in Baton Rouge; the city's mayor issued a statement saying that only one person had been arrested for shoplifting. A Houston TV station reported "rampant" false rumors on its Web site -- including a cholera outbreak and "sexual assaults . . . occurring daily" -- among the Astrodome's 16,000 evacuees. Police said that only two sexual assaults were reported, one of them unfounded.

Part of the problem was that in the post-Katrina chaos, many seasoned reporters failed to find and interview the victims of alleged crimes and their supposed perpetrators. Many inaccuracies could be traced to the lack of phone service, which prevented the dissemination of truthful reports, Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss said.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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