Monday, September 26, 2005


Remember all of the stories about anarchy, violence, rape, murder and even cannibalism in New Orleans, particularly in the Superdome and the Convention Center? Remember Oprah fuming outside of the Superdome (“I am just so mad!”) before bravely venturing in to witness the carnage firsthand?

Well, I am happy to report that many, if not most, of these stories are greatly exaggerated at a minimum and in many cases outright falsehoods. A snippet from some actual reporting (rather than the breathless trafficking in rumor and urban legend that all to many engaged in during the days and weeks after Katrina):

After five days managing near-riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Following days of internationally reported killings, rapes and gang violence inside the Dome, the doctor from FEMA - Beron doesn't remember his name - came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.

"I've got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome," Beron recalls the doctor saying.

The real total was six, Beron said.

Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped to his death in an apparent suicide, said Beron, who personally oversaw the turning over of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop melting bags of ice. State health department officials in charge of body recovery put the official death count at the Dome at 10, but Beron said the other four bodies were found in the street near the Dome, not inside it. Both sources said no one had been killed inside.

At the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, just four bodies were recovered, despites reports of corpses piled inside the building. Only one of the dead appeared to have been slain, said health and law enforcement officials.

That the nation's front-line emergency management believed the body count would resemble that of a bloody battle in a war is but one of scores of examples of myths about the Dome and the Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials, including the mayor and police superintendent. As the fog of warlike conditions in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath has cleared, the vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know.

Read, as they say, the whole thing.

As something of a student of urban legends, I have to say that this does not surprise me in the least. Human beings have consistently demonstrated a willingness to suspend disbelief in the pursuit of telling and retelling a juicy story. Murder, rape, mayhem, and cannibalism are what we would/should expect of a group of people who rapidly descended into Lord of the Flies Savagery. To simply recount that actually the vast majority of people behaved rather reasonably in the face of considerable suffering is hardly a story worth retelling. And besides, how can Bush, FEMA, and the federal government have “failed” if things ended up turning out much better than the salacious stories and exaggerations (remember Nagin’s “thousands of dead bodies” declarations?) led us to believe?

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