Katrina horror stories untrue

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 14, 2005

Oops, they may have jumped the gun. National news media are backtracking from initial reports that New Orleans descended into anarchy following Hurricane Katrina's strike on the Gulf Coast last month. For five days, lawlessness ruled. The elderly and sick dropped dead by the hundreds, and rapists preyed upon both women and children. Even infants weren't immune to sexual assault and murder, reports said, while strangers fought over the foulest bits of food. And there was water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink, with apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Journalists from CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox swarmed New Orleans after Katrina hit, searching for any scrap of information they considered sufficiently dramatic enough to impress the viewing audience. Rare does real life equal the cataclysmic events of a blockbuster feature film, but Katrina's aftermath did just that. An American city left hungry and isolated, cut off from the civilized world.

As the floodwaters rose, forcing people onto higher ground - most notoriously the Louisiana Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center - the stories started to circulate.

Enter a microphone. Enter a pen and pad. Enter a television camera.

And because of the severity of the disaster, enter a blatant acceptance of words at face value by the news media.

&uot;The bigger and more diffuse the disaster, the more the gate keeping function of the media fails in the rush to get the story out,&uot; Henry W. Fischer III, director of the Center for Disaster Research and Education at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, told Beth Gillen, a reporter with Knight-Ridder.

To be sure both the Superdome and Convention Center weren't even close to ideal living conditions for the tens of thousands left in New Orleans waiting out the storm. Imagine the stench. The squalor. The unbearable tenseness of not knowing just what type of person was lurking around your family as night descended in New Orleans. Magnified by the heat, tempers boiled. Knives flashed. Babies cried. The stories started.

Bodies were being stacked in a freezer, some 40 deep. A man ran outside the Convention Center to get help for a woman being raped and was shot dead by National Guardsmen. Alligators devoured corpses.

None of the above was true.

Although the media proliferated the stories, many public officials did their best to substantiate what amounted to hearsay. Armed gangs were roaming the streets, said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Babies were being raped, New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass cried on "Oprah."

And the general public of the United States of America ate it up and wondered how a city had come to this.

It may be a year before we know what actually happened in New Orleans, but there's no way it will end up being as horrible as we've already heard.

Kevin Pearcey is Group Managing Editor of Greenville Newspapers, LLC. He can be reached by phone at 383-9302, ext. 136 or by email at: editor@greenville.advocate.com.