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.
With nearly all communications systems with people on the ground crippled, live television became a primary information source. It was how the governor first heard about levee breaches and reports of extreme violence, particularly at the Superdome.
"The television stations were reporting that people were literally stepping over bodies and violence was out of control," said Blanco press secretary Denise Bottcher, who was at the governor's side. "But the National Guardsmen were saying that what we were seeing on CNN was contradictory to what they were seeing. It didn't match up."
In Gretna, La., a suburb of 17,500 across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans, officials fired a warning shot to keep about 5,000 people from entering by walking across a bridge connecting the two communities. The crowd retreated.
Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris said his town has been unfairly labeled racist and defended the decision. His own residents, he said, did not have water, food or electricity after Katrina struck, and officials feared, partly because of what they had heard through word of mouth and from electronic news media, that its residents were in danger. A nearby mall had been burned the day before; officials think looters did it.
"We were going to protect the lives of our residents," he said. "It's impossible to know what happened unless you were here. At the time, you don't know what to believe, but you don't want to be in a place to find out if what you heard is true."
The morning that CNN reported about the Superdome helicopter shooting and Landrieu talked of sheriffs being killed, "Baton Rouge was in a near-panic," U.S. Attorney David R. Dugas recalled in an interview Friday. He said it was hard to keep track of all the rumors -- riots in the city's River Center, a shelter for 5,000 evacuees from New Orleans; a Wal-Mart robbed and all the guns stolen; opposing gangs rampaging in the streets. The stories ricocheted from television to all-news radio to officialdom to citizens and back again.
Police and sheriffs chased each one down: All were unfounded. In a hastily called news conference, Dugas and Baton Rouge's mayor and police chief pleaded with residents to resist believing the worst. Meanwhile, an East Baton Rouge Parish official begged the local radio station to screen calls before putting them live on the air to avoid spreading unconfirmed reports.
Although many of the displaced have been the recipients of overwhelming generosity, the rumors of violence have followed them to Houston, Salt Lake City and New Iberia, La. "You would hear that two people got into a fight at a red light and cut each other to death," said Iberia Parish Sheriff Sid Hebert. "It was all violent crime, rape and pillaging. But none of it was true."
To some in the public and in the news media, the images of barely checked violence in New Orleans, and its fleeing residents, seemed plausible. New Orleans is a violent city with an average of 200 homicides a year.
The scenes of poor black people engaged in lawlessness after such events as the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King or the 1977 New York City blackout are depressingly familiar, said writer and social critic Stanley Crouch. "The public is accustomed to riotous behavior from black people in lower-class neighborhoods," he said. "Anybody who has looked at television over the last 40 years has seen black Americans tearing up places, looting places."
Finally, New Orleans was not crime-free in Katrina's aftermath. People were seen on television taking things from stores. Some were items to eat, drink or wear -- what the police call "essential items," for which people were not being arrested because the situation was so dire. Others took television sets, jewelry and guns.
Four New Orleans police officers have been suspended and one has been reassigned over allegations of looting, city police said. In the first three weeks after the storm, about 470 suspects were processed from New Orleans and adjacent Jefferson Parish. Half of them were arrested for looting, said Jim Letten, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
But there turned out to be little evidence to support CNN host Paula Zahn speaking of "reports" of "bands of rapists, going block to block," or New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin on national television, describing the scene as "animalistic."
In recent days, the retractions have begun. Then-Police Chief Eddie Compass appeared with Nagin on Sept. 6 on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The mayor said people inside the Superdome had witnessed murders and rapes. Compass added that "little babies [are] getting raped." Both have since pulled back. "The information I had at the time, I thought was credible," Compass told the Times-Picayune last week before submitting his resignation. The paper had pointed out several inconsistencies in his statements.
Violent crimes with a weapon, such as aggravated battery, numbered only a few dozen, Letten said. Officials made arrests for a double homicide and two rapes in Jefferson Parish and one rape in Orleans Parish, said Pam Laborde of the Louisiana Department of Corrections. Federal agents arrested a man for shooting at a helicopter, on Sept. 5. But several officials, including Blanco, now believe that some of the gunfire people reported in the city was attempts to signal rescuers because residents have told them so.
Setting the Record Straight
Maj. Bush of the Louisiana National Guard said he is glad the record is being corrected.
"I certainly saw fights, but I saw worse fights at a Cubs game in Chicago," he said. "The people never turned into these animals. They have been cheated out of being thought of as these tough people who looked out for each other. We had more babies born [in the Superdome] than we had deaths."
Media companies have begun to retrace their steps. The Los Angeles Times said last week that its story about the evacuation of the Superdome "adopted a breathless tone." Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/US, said reporting was challenging because official sources -- in particular Compass, the police chief -- initially confirmed many of the things reported on the air. As more information has become available, Klein said, the network has corrected the record and highlighted the danger of swirling rumors.
"We are ever vigilant about separating rumor from fact," Klein said. "This story is a good reminder of the need to do that."
Keith M. Woods, faculty dean at the Poynter Institute for journalists, is willing to cut reporters some slack. "Every institutional source for quality information was uprooted," said Woods, a New Orleans native whose father's and sister's homes were flooded. "It was different than 9/11 because everything was underwater, and you are relying totally on word of mouth. In that situation, invariably, we will get some things wrong. One of the questions that would have served us better is 'How do you know that?' "
Staff writers Lynne Duke and Ann Scott Tyson and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.