"Katrina" Continued...

Issue: "News of the year," Dec. 31, 2005

The Times-Picayune on its weblog first noticed the Convention Center's huddled masses on Wednesday, Aug. 31; federal and state authorities, paying attention to their plans, had no idea what was going on. Networks the next day discovered the oversight, and NBC initially presented a low-key report from a photographer, Tony Sambato, who had actually been in the building: "These are the families who listened to the authorities, who followed direction, who believed in the government. They were told to go to the convention center. They did. . . . They've been behaving. They have not started any melees, any riots, nothing. They just want food and support. There's no hostility there, so they don't need to be bringing any guns or anything like that. They need support."

Outside the Convention Center network reporters hysterically passed along every rumor they heard. CNN's Chris Lawrence stood on a tall building and went live with a story that "helicopters are literally just completely surrounding the city. . . . There have literally been groups of young men roaming the city, shooting at people, attempting to rape women. . . . We were at the New Orleans Convention Center today and saw mothers with their babies literally living in raw sewage. . . . People are literally dying at the Convention Center.' The show's anchor, Paula Zahn, then chimed in about "literally, people walking around in feces."

The Convention Center was a miserable place, but these "literal" events weren't happening. A month later The New York Times sheepishly acknowledged that "the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations." A contingent of National Guard troops was sent to rescue a St. Bernard Parish deputy sheriff who radioed for help, saying he was pinned down by a sniper. Accompanied by a SWAT team, the troops surrounded the area. The shots turned out to be the relief valve on a gas tank that popped open every few minutes.

Those supposed shots, though, were heard around the world. Agence France-Presse triumphantly told the story of "gunbattles and fistfights in the southern jazz capital . . . with some gunned down outside the local convention center." An Australian report claimed that "rescuers and police were shot at as New Orleans descended into anarchy today. . . . Police chief Eddie Compass said he sent in 88 officers to quell the situation at the Superdome, but they were quickly beaten back by an angry mob." None of that happened, but such reports harmed the reputation of America abroad.

Reports also harmed domestic race relations. Mayor Nagin said many of his constituents were in an "almost animalistic state," and African-American political organizer Randall Robinson said "thousands of blacks in New Orleans . . . have begun eating corpses to survive." CNN's Wolf Blitzer talked of those who were "so poor and so black" as if they were helpless children, but Coast Guard Lt. Chris Huberty, who flew a rescue helicopter, resented TV's negative characterizations of black New Orleans residents: "There were plenty of people sacrificing for others, regardless of their demographic."

CNN and other media spread rumors of African-Americans at the Convention Center and elsewhere raping and murdering at will. Times-Picayune editor Jim Maoss later noted that if media had been characterizing the attitudes of "sweaty, hungry, desperate, white people, middle-class white people, it's hard to believe that these kinds of myths would have sprung up quite as readily." But they did, and one result was that the first responders arriving at the Convention Center were not bus drivers but heavily armed soldiers: With rescue operations transformed to military ones, buses did not come there until Friday and Saturday.

With that exception, the federal response came in 72 to 96 hours as planned, but reporters and politicians were furious after 48. New Orleans homeland security director Terry Ebbert had said before the hurricane that survival was at stake, so "I'm not worried about what is tolerable or intolerable. I'm worried about whether you are alive." Several days later, Mr. Ebbert was lambasting the federal government: 'It's criminal within the confines of the United States that within one hour of the hurricane they weren't force-feeding us."

There was little criminality but lots of paperocracy. Air Force Reserve Col. Tim Tarchick told CBS that his unit "could have been airborne in six hours and overhead plucking out people . . . but between all the agencies that have a part in the approval process it took 34 hours to get three of my helicopters airborne."


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