Sunday, January 08, 2006

They Shoot Helicopters, Don’t They? (Part 3)

Following is the conclusion of a December 2005 article in the online magazine "Reason."

They Shoot Helicopters, Don’t They?

From a journalistic point of view, the root causes of the bogus reports were largely the same: The communication breakdown without and especially within New Orleans created an information vacuum in which wild oral rumor thrived. Reporters failed to exercise enough skepticism in passing along secondhand testimony from victims (who often just parroted what they picked up from the rumor mill), and they were far too eager to broadcast as fact apocalyptic statements from government officials—such as Mayor Ray Nagin’s prediction of 10,000 Katrina-related deaths (there were less than 900 in New Orleans at press time) and Police Superintendent Edwin Compass’ reference on The Oprah Winfrey Show to “little babies getting raped”—without factoring in discounts for incompetence and ulterior motives.

Just about every local official and emergency responder with access to the media in those first heartbreaking days basically screamed, and understandably so, for federal assistance. With their citizens stranded, desperate, and even dying, with their own response a shambles, and with their families and employees in mortal jeopardy, they had ample temptation to exaggerate the wretchedness of local conditions and ample fatigue to let some whoppers fly.

“I think that’s exactly what it was,” says Maj. Bush. “But the problem is they were doing it on the radio, and then the people in the dome would hear it.”

The information vacuum in the Superdome was especially dangerous. Cell phones didn’t work, the arena’s public address system wouldn’t run on generator power, and the law enforcement on hand was reduced to talking to the 20,000 evacuees using bullhorns and a lot of legwork. “A lot of them had AM radios, and they would listen to news reports that talked about the dead bodies at the Superdome, and the murders in the bathrooms of the Superdome, and the babies being raped at the Superdome,” Bush says, “and it would create terrible panic. I would have to try and convince them that no, it wasn’t happening.”

The reports of rampant lawlessness, especially the persistent urban legend of shooting at helicopters, definitely delayed some emergency and law enforcement responses. Reports abounded, from places like Andover, Massachusetts, of localities refusing to send their firefighters because of “people shooting at helicopters.” The National Guard refused to approach the Convention Center until September 2, 100 hours after the hurricane, because “we waited until we had enough force in place to do an overwhelming force,” Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum told reporters on September 3.

“One of my good friends, Col. Jacques Thibodeaux, led that security effort,” Bush says. “They said, ‘Jacques, you gotta get down here and sweep this thing.’ He said he was braced for anything. And he encountered nothing—other than a whole lot of people clapping and cheering and so glad that they were here.”

At the same time, it is plausible that the exaggerations helped make the outside response quicker than it otherwise would have been, potentially saving lives. As with many details of this natural and manmade disaster, we may never know.

But in the meantime, truth became a casualty, news organizations that were patting their own backs in early September were publishing protracted mea culpas by the end of the month, and reputation of a great American city has been, at least to some degree, unfairly tarnished.

“New Orleanians have been kind of cheated, because now everybody thinks that they just turned to animals, and that there was complete lawlessness and utter abandon,” says Maj. Bush. “And that wasn’t the case.…There’s a whole bunch of stuff out there that never happened at the dome, as I think America’s beginning to find out, slowly.”

Matt Welch is associate editor of Reason


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