News of Pandemonium May Have Slowed Aid
Wednesday, October 5, 2005
Five weeks after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, some local, state and federal officials have come to believe that exaggerations of mayhem by officials and rumors repeated uncritically in the news media helped slow the response to the disaster and tarnish the image of many of its victims.
Claims of widespread looting, gunfire directed at helicopters and rescuers, homicides, and rapes, including those of "babies" at the Louisiana Superdome, frequently turned out to be overblown, if not completely untrue, officials now say.
The sensational accounts delayed rescue and evacuation efforts already hampered by poor planning and a lack of coordination among local, state and federal agencies. People rushing to the Gulf Coast to fly rescue helicopters or to distribute food, water and other aid steeled themselves for battle. In communities near and far, the seeds were planted that the victims of Katrina should be kept away, or at least handled with extreme caution.
"Rumor control was a beast for us," said Maj. Ed Bush of the Louisiana National Guard, who was stationed at the Superdome. "People would hear something on the radio and come and say that people were getting raped in the bathroom or someone had been murdered. I would say, 'Ma'am, where?' I would tell them if there were bodies, my guys would find it. Everybody heard, nobody saw. Logic was out the window because the situation was illogical."
There was an unnerving amount of lawlessness, especially looting, in the streets of New Orleans after the hurricane. But many of the more salacious reports have not withstood close examination by government officials or the media.
CNN reported repeatedly on Sept. 1, three days after Katrina ravaged New Orleans, that evacuations at the Superdome were suspended because "someone fired a shot at a helicopter." But Louisiana National Guard officials on the ground at the time now say that no helicopters came under attack and that evacuations were never stopped because of gunfire.
Later that morning, during a briefing carried live on local radio and local and national television, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said, "We have gotten reports, but unconfirmed, of some of our deputies and sheriffs that have either been injured or killed." Of the thousands of law enforcement officials who converged on New Orleans, only one was shot. The wound to the leg was self-inflicted in a struggle, a spokesman for the Guard said last week.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that National Guard troops found 30 to 40 bodies decomposing inside a freezer in the convention center, including a girl whose throat was slashed. The newspaper quoted a member of the Arkansas National Guard, which was deployed in the building. Other news organizations then passed the information on.
That, too, was untrue. On Monday, Bob Johannessen, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said that four bodies were found -- one was a gunshot victim. He said officials had no record of a dead girl with her throat cut.
The Washington Post, in a Sept. 1 front-page article, noted that evacuees at the Superdome were repeating rumors of rapes and killings but quoted Maj. Bush as saying "none of that" occurred. A Sept. 15 front-page story said the precise number of people who died in the convention center was not known at the time, but officials believed it could be as many as 10.
Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, said that reporters got bogged down trying to tell people how bad the situation was rather than "gathering facts and corroborating that information."
The suspect reports of violence and mayhem in the city, some of which originated from frightened and confused victims, added to the confusion for political leaders, including Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), seeking to get a handle on the situation.