Monday, September 26, 2005

Deaths greatly exaggerated in New Orleans

Hurricane: Surprise surprise, NOLA did a bit of investigating to all the reports of death and mayhem that went on at the Convention Center and Dome. What they found out is that a lot of people were spreading rumors and authorities were spreading lies. The national media did a tremendous job spreading these stories and now won't do any followups because it would get in the way of their storyline. I don't expect this to be followed up on Romenesko or Greg Mitchell's Editor and Publisher site.

By Brian Thevenot and Gordon Russell Staff writers 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. "I think 99 percent of it is bulls---," 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. ... Ninety-nine percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved." Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state Health and Human Services Department administrator overseeing the body recovery operation, said his teams were inundated with false reports about the Dome and Convention Center. "We swept both buildings several times, because we kept getting reports of more bodies there," Cataldie said. "But it just wasn't the case." Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said authorities had confirmed only four murders in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina - making it a typical week in a city that anticipated more than 200 homicides this year. Jordan expressed outrage at reports from many national media outlets that suffering flood victims had turned into mobs of unchecked savages. "I had the impression that at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred at the two sites," he said. "It's unfortunate we saw these kinds of stories saying crime had taken place on a massive scale when that wasn't the case. And they (national media outlets) have done nothing to follow up on any of these cases, they just accepted what people (on the street) told them. ... It's not consistent with the highest standards of journalism."
But the reports looked great on Oprah.
In interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Compass reported rapes of "babies," and Mayor Ray Nagin spoke of "hundreds of armed gang members" killing and raping people inside the Dome. Unidentified evacuees told of children stepping over so many bodies, "we couldn't count." The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them. Nagin told Winfrey the crowd has descended to an "almost animalistic state." Four weeks after the storm, few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The piles of bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines say that although anarchy reigned at times and people suffered unimaginable indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened. ...In many cases, authorities gave credibility to portraits of violence broadcast around the world. Compass told Winfrey on Sept. 6 that "some of the little babies (are) getting raped" in the Dome. Nagin backed it with his own tale of horrors: ''They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.'' But both men have since pulled back to a degree. "The information I had at the time, I thought it was credible," Compass said, conceding his earlier statements were false. Asked for the source of the information, Compass said he didn't remember. Nagin frankly acknowledged that he doesn't know the extent of the mayhem that occurred inside the Dome and the Convention Center - and may never. "I'm having a hard time getting a good body count," he said. Compass said rumors had often crippled authorities' response to reported lawlessness, sending badly needed resources to respond to situations that turned out not to exist. He offered his own intensely personal example: The day after the storm, he heard "some civilians" talking about how a band of armed thugs had invaded the Ritz-Carlton hotel and started raping women - including his 24-year-old daughter, who stayed there through the storm. He rushed to the scene only to find that although a group of men had tried to enter the hotel, they weren't armed and were easily turned back by police. Compass, however, promulgated some of the unfounded rumors himself, in interviews in which he characterized himself and his officers as outgunned warriors taking out armed bands of thugs at every turn. "People would be shooting at us, and we couldn't shoot back because of the families," Compass told a reporter from the (Bridgeport) Connecticut Post who interviewed him at the Saints' Monday Night Football game in New York, where he was the guest of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "All we could do is rush toward the flash." Compass added that he and his officers succeeded in wrestling 30 weapons from criminals using the follow-the-muzzle-flash technique, the story said. "We got 30 that way," Compass was quoted as saying. Asked about the muzzle-flash story last week, Compass said, "That really happened" to Winn's SWAT team at the Convention Center. But Winn, when asked about alleged shootouts in a separate interview, said his unit saw muzzle flashes and heard gunshots only one time. Despite aggressively frisking a number of suspects, the team recovered no weapons. His unit never found anyone who had been shot.
Read it! Update# So far Romenesko is touting the greatness of big muscles. All muscles and no brains.
New Orleans story needed print journalism's big muscles New York TimesBy their disposition, hurricanes are a television story, says David Carr. But TV journalists rarely tackle the big questions. "Is Mayor Ray Nagin a saint or a kook? Were the levees overtopped or undermined? Will New Orleans be a real city again, or just Disneyland with Jell-O shots?" writes Carr. "The New Orleans story needed the big muscles of print journalism to gain custody of facts that seemed beyond comprehension."

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