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In Katrina's Wake, Inaccurate Rumors Sullied Victims

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.

But Amoss added this:

"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 rumormongering."

No kidding. It's always easier to recount -- and believe -- the alleged inhumanity of those who are poor, less educated or of different ethnicities than of those reporting their supposed actions. Rumor becomes part of the official record more often than journalists, historians and other "authoritative" chroniclers care to acknowledge.

Post-hurricane confusion between rumor and fact reminds Howard University history Professor Elizabeth Clark-Lewis of historian George Rudé's classic 1959 study, "The Crowd in the French Revolution," about the masses of Parisians -- many of them poor -- who violently overthrew the monarchy. According to Rudé, "Rumors did impact on the behavior of the crowd," sometimes resulting in more violence, Clark-Lewis says.

But Rudé also found that "when you're talking about classes of people, it's easy to expect [poor] people to act a certain way, and to accept rumors of their criminality when in fact, much of [what was reported] was greatly exaggerated," the Howard professor says.

Today, as in the late 1700s, such exaggerations reflect the presumption that "individuals who are outside the mainstream . . . are going to create disorder wherever they are." Like exaggerated reports of post-Katrina criminality, "rumors made their way into the written histories of the French Revolution, even police records," Clark-Lewis says.

"Rumors became part of what historians [accepted]."

So why do people -- and in the case of post-Katrina rumors, black people -- accept the worst suppositions about themselves? I asked someone whose experience might have resembled that of a frightened, traumatized hurricane victim:

A war veteran.

In 1944, Silver Spring resident Wilson Hull was stationed in Italy with the U.S. Army's black "Buffalo division." Fighting the German army was tough; almost as demoralizing were letters his comrades received from home filled with rumors:

Of black soldiers' below-par equipment and training. Of white soldiers' hatred of "colored" soldiers. Of his comrades' alleged cowardice.

"There were rumors that the black troops were running away from the enemy," Hull, 83, recalls. "But my unit was assigned to the front lines -- people weren't turning their backs." Moreover, the white soldiers whom Hull met were friendly, and his unit's equipment and training matched theirs.

But war is the ultimate isolated, fear-fraught situation. "You had the same type situation in the Superdome," Hull says. "A lot of the worst rumors are spread by your own people. The more isolated you are, the more detrimental the effects."

Inevitably, terrible things did happen in Katrina's wake. That some terrible things never happened -- but were reported as true -- was perhaps just as inevitable.

"Pure fact doesn't exist," Clark-Lewis states. "If four people observe an accident, you're going to have four ways of understanding it. . . . We see fact as the written record of what happened.

"But just because something's written doesn't make it true."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company