Why were the New Orleans stories believed?

The degree to which the stories of mayhem in the Superdome and Convention Center were overblown is captured in this story in the Seattle Times:

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 murders, rapes and gang violence inside the stadium, 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 recalled the doctor saying.

The real total?

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 handoff of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop melting bags of ice.

The vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees – mass murders, rapes and beatings – 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.

“I think 99 percent of it is [expletive],” said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside the Dome. “Don’t get me wrong – bad things happened. But I didn’t see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything … 99 percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved.”

As a result of such stories, though, the victims of Katrina continued to suffer further indignities. People of neighboring communities wanted to have nothing to do with people who they thought were capable of such awful behavior. I have already written (see here and here) about how the sheriff of the neighboring town of Gretna fired at a group of people on the bridge leading to their town to prevent them from entering because the townspeople were afraid of looters. (The mayor of Gretna has released his side of the story which can be read here.)

And this negative image spilled over to the people affected by hurricane Rita as well. There are the reports of the buses carrying Rita evacuees to East Texas not being allowed to stop in towns, even for people to buy food or use the rest rooms or just rest, because of similar fears. The evacuees described their journey as like a horror movie, as they met hostility from the various small towns they passed through nds their buses were prevented from stopping and forced to keep moving. The description of their journey is heart wrenching.

So why were these stories of poor people behaving badly so easily believed and broadcast in the face of so little evidence? In actual fact, what you had, apart from isolated incidents, were people behaving remarkably well in the face of tremendous hardship. It is here that the issues of race and class come to the surface. Most of the people whose plight was dramatized and cast in a negative light were poor, representing the wide range of ethnicities that live in New Orleans. Even though much of the ‘looting’ was done out of desperate need, it was portrayed differently depending on who did it. When tourists staying at hotels raided nearby drugstores for food and water and when Roman Catholic nuns looking after elderly and infirm patients in a nursing home in a flooded area looted a store to try and get supplies to ease the conditions of their dying patients, these were rightly seen as justifiable acts based on need.

But when the people taking the same kinds of things were poor and people of color, the acts were viewed by some as the kinds of things you could expect, once the institutions of law and order crumbled, from people who were basically criminally inclined. Although TVs and car stereos are stolen every day and in every city without much attention paid to it, when the same things happened in post-Katrina New Orleans, those acts were given a symbolism they did not merit, and used to stigmatize a whole community. There are always criminals who seize on instability to try and enrich themselves. But I am at a loss to understand why, when the urgent need was for the relief and rescue of people, so much attention was focused on the loss of goods.

In the next posting we will examine how people have seized upon the false reports out of the aftermath of Katrina to pursue various political agendas.

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