Among many other lessons, Hurricane Katrina provides yet another example of how quickly stories can mutate in the retelling, especially in stressful situations. That’s totally understandable. People under stress can imagine, and say, a lot of things that they believe to be 100% correct. But oftentimes, things later turn out to be different.
For example, we read in today’s paper that the stories of savagery in the New Orleans Superdome may not have been completely accurate. (I’ve seen a number of those stories in emails circulated by friends, with some of the emails purporting to come from people who supposedly got the information from eyewitnesses.) In an Associated Press piece published in today’s Houston Chronicle, Michelle Roberts reports:
NEW ORLEANS - On Sept. 1, with desperate Hurricane Katrina evacuees crammed into the convention center, Police Chief Eddie Compass reported: "We have individuals who are getting raped; we have individuals who are getting beaten."
Five days later, Mayor C. Ray Nagin told Oprah Winfrey: "They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."
The ugliest reports — children with slit throats, women dragged off and raped, corpses piling up in the basement — soon became a searing image of post-Katrina New Orleans.
The stories were told by residents trapped inside the Superdome and convention center and were repeated by public officials. Many news organizations carried the witness accounts and official pronouncements and in some cases later repeated the claims as fact, without attribution.
But now, a month after the chaos subsided, police are re-examining the reports and finding that many of them have little or no basis in fact.