New Orleans: post-Katrina violence was exaggerated

Remember all those vicious rapes and senseless murders that served to justify the shoot-to-kill policy declared by state and federal authorities in post-Katrina New Orleans? Well, weeks after the fact, it turns out most of them probably didn't really happen. Michelle Roberts writes for the AP Sept. 27 (via Newsday):

NEW ORLEANS -- On Sept. 1, with desperate Hurricane Katrina evacuees crammed into the convention center, Police Chief Eddie Compass reported: "We have individuals who are getting raped; we have individuals who are getting beaten."

Five days later, he told Oprah Winfrey that babies were being raped. On the same show, Mayor Ray Nagin warned: "They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."

The ugliest reports -- children with slit throats, women dragged off and raped, corpses piling up in the basement -- soon became a searing image of post-Katrina New Orleans.

The stories were told by residents trapped inside the Superdome and convention center and were repeated by public officials. Many news organizations, including The Associated Press, carried the witness accounts and official pronouncements, and in some cases later repeated the claims as fact, without attribution.

But now, a month after the chaos subsided, police are re-examining the reports and finding that many of them have little or no basis in fact.

They have no official reports of rape and no eyewitnesses to sexual assault. The state Department of Health and Hospitals counted 10 dead at the Superdome and four at the convention center. Only two of those are believed to have been murdered.

One of those victims -- found at the Superdome -- appears to have been killed elsewhere before being brought to the stadium, said Bob Johannessen, the agency spokesman.

"It was a chaotic time for the city. Now that we've had a chance to reflect back on that situation, we're able to say right now that things were not the way they appeared," said police Capt. Marlon Defillo.

Sally Forman, a spokeswoman for Nagin, said the mayor was relying on others for his information about conditions at the evacuation sites. "He was listening to officials, trusting that information they were providing was accurate," she said.

To be sure, conditions at both sites were chaotic. Water was rising around the Superdome, home to 20,000 evacuees. Toilets were backing up, garbage was rotting, fights were breaking out. Food was in short supply at the convention center, where about 19,000 people took shelter from the rising waters. The temperature was climbing. The elderly and very young were desperate for food, water and medicine.

Police said they saw muzzle flashes at the convention center, and a National Guard member was shot in the leg when an evacuee tried to take his gun.

A week after the floodwaters poured into the city, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans quoted an Arkansas National Guardsman as saying that soldiers had discovered 30 to 40 bodies inside a freezer in the convention center's food area. Guardsman Mikel Brooks told the newspaper that some of the dead appeared to have met violent ends, including "a 7-year-old with her throat cut."

When the convention center was swept, however, no such pile of bodies was found.

Lt. Col. John Edwards, the staff judge advocate for the 39th Infantry Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard, said Tuesday that Brooks told the Times-Picayune reporter only that he had heard rumors of bodies in the freezer, not that he had actually seen them.

"We have never found anybody who has any first-hand knowledge of dozens of bodies in the refrigerator," Edwards said. He said Brooks was unavailable for comment.

Lt. Col. Jacques Thibodeaux of the Louisiana National Guard said reports of violence at the Superdome and the convention center were overblown. He was head of security at the Superdome and led the 1,000 military police and infantrymen who went in to secure the center on Sept. 2.

"The incidents were highly exaggerated" -- the result of fear and hopelessness, he said. "For the amount of the people in the situation, it was a very stable environment."

Thibodeaux said his guard unit received no reports of rape.

Bill Waldron, a homicide detective from Florida in New Orleans for a murder trial, was stuck in the convention center until Sept. 1. He said he saw a couple of fights between young men, but "no murders, no rapes." He said that he did see people dying, but that those deaths were most likely a result of the heat and lack of water.

"People were wanting just some type of authority to come in and say, `Hey, this is what's going to happen,'" Waldron said. "People were scared."

New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan said officials at the morgue in St. Gabriel have identified four apparent homicide victims from the city. All were shot and all were adults. Police arrested one person on suspicion of attempted sexual assault but received no official reports of rape.

Judy Benitez, executive director of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, cautioned that it might be too soon to say whether there really were rapes at the evacuation sites. Because the evacuees and any perpetrators have been scattered across the country by Katrina, and now Hurricane Rita, victims may come forward later, she said.

"It is extremely difficult to get good statistics about rape under normal circumstances, and these are certainly not normal circumstances," she said.

Bill Ellis, a folklorist at Pennsylvania State University, said rumors in an environment like that at the evacuation centers are to be expected, given the frightening circumstances and paucity of authoritative information.

"Rumors become improvised news. You become your own anchorman," he said.

The chaos also seemed to affect some reporters and editors, said Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics to journalists at the Poynter Institute, a journalism research and education center in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"You get so hung up as a reporter on what the big picture is that you use generalizations that become untrue," McBride said.

New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass has stepped down. The resignation came shortly after the police department announced that it was beginning disciplinary investigations of 250 members of the 1,700-person police force for leaving their posts during Katrina. (Newsday, Sept. 28) Returning refugees are starting to trickle into the city—where they are finding "a curfew, limited services and no critical care hospital services." (Newsday, Sept. 27)

See our last post on the politics of Katrina.

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