Do You Know What It Means to Myth New Orleans?
Main Image: Struggling to Make It
Cheryl Gerber
Looting on Canal Street amplified myths of lawlessness in the wake of the storm.
One of the Crescent City's biggest challenges is overcoming inaccurate reports and stereotypes that formed in the immediate wake of Katrina, according to Katy Reckdahl, in this article originally published in the August 22, 2006, Gambit Weekly.
Image: Struggling to Make It
Katy Reckdahl

Callers to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau don't know basic facts about post-Katrina New Orleans. "Do you have electricity yet?" they ask. "Is the water safe to drink? Will I get sick from breathing the air?"Others imply that there is still standing water in parts of the city.

"Progress has been slow, we would all agree. But there has been progress," says bureau spokeswoman Mary Beth Romig, who knows the hurricane's wrath first-hand. She lost her house in Lakeview, as did family members like her father, longtime New Orleans Saints announcer Jerry Romig.

A lot of Mary Beth Romig's callers should know better. They're news reporters, meeting planners, and potential tourists who may have been misled by network TV, which still airs archival footage from the hurricane's aftermath, when tree limbs blocked roads and floodwaters covered 80 percent of the city.

Everyday, callers ask for specific progress reports. Have the roads been repaired? Can I buy groceries in the city? In mid-June, the bureau was flooded with calls after the National Guard and its Humvees began patrolling the city at the request of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. "Now people are wondering whether they're coming to a city that's the Wild Wild West, where people are gunning each other down in the streets," says Romig, who explains that the National Guard is deployed in less-populated neighborhoods, freeing up New Orleans police to concentrate on the city's hotspots.

People had seen unimaginable things, but a small percentage, many still covered in ash, told me tales that were worse than what actually happened.

The phone calls may illustrate a larger problem: the nation isn't getting an accurate picture of the city of New Orleans. Callers are not only misinformed; they're quick to jump to conclusions, says Romig. "Unfortunately," she says, "New Orleans is under a microscope right now, and whatever happens is taken as a sign that the city is not coming back."

But it's hard for the bureau to convey accurate information when many New Orleans tourists don't give a whit about city plans and Road Home money. "We did some research recently," says Romig, "and we found that people didn't want to hear the word 'rebirth' anymore. They wanted the old messages about New Orleans, the laissez les bon temps rouler." As a result, the bureau moved to a more reassuring message that New Orleans is alive and thriving, where the hurricane in a glass receives more emphasis than the hurricanes in the Gulf.

The first seeds of misinformation took root right after Hurricane Katrina hit, says Lori Peek, a sociologist at Colorado State University and one of a handful of U. S. sociologists documenting the ongoing experiences of Katrina evacuees. Peek's specialty is disasters—specifically how disasters disproportionately affect poor people, partly because they lack the money to properly prepare or quickly recover.

When Peek teaches her Sociology of Disaster class, one of the first weeks is devoted to something called "disaster myth." A half-century of disaster research proves that the stereotypes are not true, she says. For instance, despite what you've seen in the movies, people don't panic. Most of the time, they react in a pretty orderly fashion. They don't get violent, and they don't focus on saving themselves. In fact, most of the rescues after any disaster are people saving others around them. Officials also act predictably, often overestimating the number of deaths and calling for martial law (which is usually unnecessary).

Peek can illustrate how disaster myth plays out again and again over time. For instance, after Katrina, it took nearly a month for anyone to question the news reporting. On Sept. 19, The New York Times published a piece by reporter David Carr called "More Horrible Than Truth: News Reports." Reporters had swallowed rumors and reported them as truth, Carr believed. "Many instances in the lurid libretto of widespread murder, carjacking, rape, and assaults that filled the airwaves and newspapers have yet to be established or proved, as far as anyone can determine," he wrote. "And many of the urban legends that sprang up-the systematic rape of children, the slitting of a 7-year-old's throat-so far seem to be just that."

Carr saw parallels to 9/11, which he had covered as a reporter. "People had seen unimaginable things, but a small percentage, many still covered in ash, told me tales that were worse than what actually happened," he wrote.

That's classic disaster myth, says Peek. What she calls "the Katrina narrative" was set not long after the hurricane hit the city. "Violence became such a big part of the Katrina story. We heard that people in New Orleans were dangerous, that they were killing each other in the convention center," she says. Peek also saw the TV footage of looters entering stores across the city, but she would argue that most of that activity was focused on survival, on people getting food and water.

During that first week, trained emergency management officials thought Katrina was an exception, she says. "They said, 'No, this one's different,' because it's a bunch of black poor people stuck in the Superdome, and they're going to loot and be violent."

Race-based rumor like this was common during the civil-rights era, says Joe Leonard Jr., head of the Washington, D.C.-based Black Leadership Forum, a coalition of 28 civil-rights groups. "During integration, there was often hysteria in the white community—'African Americans are buying up all the ice picks.'" That hysteria still crops up. "Remember Do the Right Thing in 1989? People believed that black people were going to mob after seeing this Spike Lee movie."

Somehow, the Katrina myths crossed racial lines. "This is the first time I know of that black people believed the hysteria," says Leonard. He recalls that on Thursday, he was in a meeting with all of the Black Leadership Forum organizations. They began taking calls from black Louisiana leaders, who were calling in on speaker phone, telling horrendous stories.

"People in the room were weeping," says Leonard. "Elected officials from Louisiana told us, 'The men are raping the women in the Superdome.' They were calling for martial law. And they were discussing gangs killing everybody they saw. Those are the same things that were being said in white conservative households uptown. I'm accustomed to it being said in those circles. I'm not accustomed to it being said in African-American circles. We believed the worst about ourselves."

1 2 3 NEXT>