Echo Chamber in the Superdome
A Louisiana National Guardsman explains how he dealt with false rumors being piped into Ground Zero of Hurricane Katrina.
We are now into Week Two of elite news organizations' re-evaluation of the New Orleans horror stories they helped transmit to the world in the first seven days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. It was known already by September 6 that tales of evacuee ultra-violence in refugee centers like Baton Rouge and Houston were both false and strikingly similar to one another, but it took much longer to begin clearing the muck from the Big Easy.
But starting with New Orleans' heroic though not-infallible Times-Picayune, the correctives have come rolling in, from (in order) the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, Knight Ridder, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Most focused on apocalyptic tales of violence that did not leave an evidentiary trail after the Superdome and Convention Center were finally cleared out—the mythical seven-year-old rape victim with her throat slit, the 30-40 bodies in the freezer, the constant gun violence.
I spent last week trying to track down one particularly persistent yet difficult-to-confirm rumor—that rescue helicopters had been shot at, specifically an Air National Guard Chinook at the Superdome in the pre-dawn hours of September 1, which was the main source for the shooting-at-helicopters storyline that immediately swept the globe. This Sunday, the Knight Ridder news service published a very thorough take on the issue, duplicating my private findings that "representatives from the Air Force, Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security and Louisiana Air National Guard say they have yet to confirm a single incident of gunfire at helicopters." It's more complicated than all that—please read the whole article to see the various conflicting reports, especially about the effects of the rumors on rescue efforts—but in the process of trying to verify competing claims, I got on the phone September 29 with Major Ed Bush, public affairs officer for the Louisiana National Guard, who was there at the Superdome before, during, and after the alleged shooting incident.
Our conversation proved far more interesting than I'd bargained for, with Maj. Bush discussing the practical challenges of managing information flow in an extremely stressful environment of wild oral rumor, piped-in falsehoods, and desperate hopes. This wasn't intended to be a Q&A, but Bush's story comes best out of his own mouth.
Reason: On Sept. 1 there was a report that perhaps a Chinook helicopter at the Superdome was fired upon before daybreak. Do you know whatever became of that, was that true, where does the report come from specifically, etc.?
Bush: Huh! I was at the Superdome for eight days, and I don't remember hearing anything about a helicopter getting shot at at the Dome.
Reason: That's … interesting.
Bush: Oh, not really. There's a whole bunch of [laughs] stuff out there that never happened at the Dome, as I think America's beginning to find out slowly.
Reason: Tell me a little bit about your precise duties at the Dome while you were there.
Bush: I am a public affairs officer, so I went at first to cover down on media…. I was there on Sunday, when the Dome first opened its doors as an evacuation center. And as there were thousands of people lining up, certainly the media showed up, so I came on down, and was more or less just telling them what we were doing. And at the end of the day everybody came into the Dome, and we rode out the storm, and I did more of the same, and press conferences via cell phone talking about "No, the Dome has not fallen on us, the building is not crumbling, etc. etc."
Later in the week, 80 percent of my job became public information. I would meet with the commander down there, and we would talk about those four or five most important messages to get out to the 16, 18, 20,000 evacuees in the Dome, and I would take my two guys, and we would take our three megaphones, and we would walk around the Dome for hours and put that information out. Because there was so much miscommunication and misinformation coming from internal in the way of just rumors…
Reason: "Internal"—you mean internal to the Superdome?
Bush: Yeah, internal within the Superdome. Because the Superdome itself was its own little microcosm—I mean, those 20,000 people no longer had TV or really any contact with the outside world, for the most part, from their point of view.
And then there was a lot of things that made my job a lot harder in the way of what they would hear on the radio. 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," and it would create terrible panic, of which I would have to try and convince them that no, it wasn't happening…. You could use logic, but I mean there was so much desperation and so much fear already, because of what had happened to us.
Someone would say, "You know they're killing people in the bathroom; they found a girl's body and she'd been raped and her throat was slit and they found her in the bathroom," and you could say, "Well, did you see it?"
"No, I heard."
"Well, what bathroom?"
"Well, I don't know; one of those over there."
Everything was some other place, and "I heard it"…and none of it was true.
Reason: So, did you fear that they were true? Did you try to track down and confirm all or most of these yourself, or…
Bush: Well, I worked hand-in-hand with, and got to know very well, Major David Baldwin, who was the commander of our special reaction team, [and]…certainly a principal player in keeping the security of the Dome. I mean his guys patrolled every inch of it, 24 hours a day. We constantly had moving patrols—outside, inside, through, on the field, in the bathrooms. And I said, "You know I'm hearing all this crap about bodies in the bathroom, and this and that. Are you finding any bodies?" And he said "No."
He said, "You've got to help us; people are scared to death."
Reason: And how was your physical communication at the time? I mean you guys had functional walkie-talkies at least, right?
Bush: Right. Our guys, we all had radios, internal Dome radios. For example if I saw someone come to me and he said, "Somebody's having a seizure," I could get on and call for medics and say, "I'm on the terrace of Gate C, I need medics, I'm here now," and then a couple of security guys would show up, and the medical team would show up, and security guys would clear the crowd, and most of the time some other folks would jump in and help us, and we'd either carry the person, or put him on a cart, or do something and move out.
Or, you know, we would have a fight break out, and I'd call for security or someone would call for security, and "We've got a fight, possible altercation going on here." And guys would come in, and a couple minutes later it'd be done.
Reason: So you guys had presence the entire time? Through the storm there was always at least some Louisiana National Guard in the building?
Bush: Always. There was hundreds of Louisiana Guard guys there, yeah.
Reason: Wow, I'm sitting here in Los Angeles, California, so what the hell do I know, of course, but there was just the assumption that, you know, this was Lord of the Flies for at least two or three days there.
Bush: Yeah, and you know what? I need your help. I just got off the phone with a Washington Post guy….Brian Thevenot, the Times-Picayune reporter, was on CNN and was interviewed on Fox, and now we're getting all these inquiries again, coming back around, because I think a lot of folks are feeling a little bit guilty because they passed along the same old shit.
Reason: Which gets me back to the specific helicopter thing. That report came out on September 1 or so; it was, you know, "Evacuation Halted at Superdome Because of Shots Fired at Military Helicopter."
Bush: Yeah. In eight days inside the Superdome, there was no gunfire, there were no battles. There was one incident where…somebody had a pole from one of the cots, and I think [our] security guy might have surprised him; they opened the door and he came at him. And the Guardsmen got hit, and there was water down there, and I think slipping and pulling and this and that, and three rounds went off and one of them went into the Guardsmen's legs. More or less he shot himself.
Reason: [Laughs.] That's not funny.
Bush: No it's not, and he's OK; he's probably a little embarrassed, quite frankly. And in eight days that's the only shots fired that we had in the Superdome.
Reason: And this includes the perimeter, too, and the heliport?
Bush: Yeah. I mean, we would have heard it. The instant reaction over the radio would have been overwhelming.
Reason: Because there's hundreds of guys there.
And certainly we had tense times, and that was where my job shifted so hard. Major Baldwin would come and say, "You know, we've got a big crowd forming." And one day in particular, somehow somebody said, "The busses are here, they're gonna pick us up here." So everybody wanted to be first in line at that spot. […]
People started pushing and shoving, I mean just crowded, like a concert. And the people in the front were getting—I mean it's hot out, it's hard to breathe—and they were getting crushed. And I hopped up on a back of a truck, where we had a sound system, and I talked everybody through. I was like, "Come on people, we were going over it this morning, you're completely going against everything we said we were going to try to do; this isn't the line for anything, you've got to believe me, everybody's going to get out of here." […]
But it would be so frustrating, where you might spend hours to get people to believe what the plan was, and that, "Sure, this is unlivable, and we don't have flush toilets, it's a horrible, nasty place that we're all in, and it stinks, and it's hot. And you know what? We know that, too, because we're here with you. But no, there's not people being killed, we wouldn't let that happen. And we're gonna make it, everybody's gonna make it." And then one radio report might nullify all of that.
Reason: Have you gone back and tried to trace any of the roots of some of these wild rumors?
Bush: Nah, I'm going to leave that to y'all.
Brian Thevenot, the Times-Picayune reporter, did the most in-depth backtracking that I've seen, and I think it got him national recognition in the blink of an eye. I mean, he found nothing. And I think he got a whole lot of people going, "Oh jeez, you know, OK: I'm guilty of it."
And I'm not going give any of them a break. Because if you're in a position of leadership, you need to be able to think through what you're saying. And there's nothing wrong with saying, "You know what? I don't really know what the condition is in the Dome, let's go down and talk to 'em. Let's go down and see."
That might have made things a lot better for all of us. Certainly, it wouldn't have changed how quick help arrived. Because quite honestly, I heard that help stayed away—I had heard that FEMA stayed away because it was too dangerous. Well, then you can certainly connect some dots and say that perhaps FEMA would have been quicker in if we hadn't heard all these urban myths about shootings and rapes and deaths and killing and bodies everywhere.
Reason: I had heard that when the National Guard came into the Convention Center…they came in with basically overwhelming force, and were surprised to see that everyone was just happy that they were there.
Bush: Yeah. One of my good friends, Col. Jacques Thibideaux, led that security effort; that's his guys. He is an MP and he's a cop. That was his baby, and they said "Jacques, you gotta get down here and sweep this thing." And 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.
Reason: But even in that case, I guess, you can't help—despite whatever communications you have internally or within your unit—you can't help but be influenced by the reports that are flying around the ether as well, right?
Bush: Sure. I mean to some degree I guess you doubt yourself a little bit. Because we've all been in situations where you think you're in the know, but maybe you're not. Maybe just somebody forgot to tell you….
We would hear stuff from the Convention Center, too, and we were like, "Ah jeez, it must be really really bad down there, because it's not like that here. I mean it sucks here, but there's certainly not babies being raped…."
I mean, can I unequivocally say that no woman got felt up by some other man in the Superdome? No. I think it's reasonable to think that if you cram that many people off the street together, someone's going to push the envelope, someone's going to cross the line. And I'm sure that there were rapists and child molesters in that group of people…. Anytime you're going to bring in everybody off the street you're going to bring some pretty unseasonable characters. But in all the screening we did of everybody coming through, I think they only confiscated like forty-some weapons. Which is I don't think anywhere near what you'd expect….
But for the most part this was 19,900 people who were just devastated, and desperate, and tired, and scared, because they probably had lost family or didn't know where some family was, and faced with the unknown of not knowing what tomorrow's going to bring. All they knew was that the New Orleans Superdome was a horrible place to live. But they also kind of knew it was the best place around, at least right now. And they knew that they just kind of had to suck it up and endure it with us. I told them every day, you know, "We're still here folks. You saw us here on Sunday, and we're not leaving until y'all are out of here." And they kind of believed it, they hung on.
But New Orleans, I guess my last point is, I kind of feel upset. Because I have some pictures of a Dad reading stories to his kid. I have a picture of a lady who—I don't know what the hell she was thinking when she brought it—but she brought her clown suit, and make-up, and she's in full clown garb, and she's got a wig on, and a nose and everything, and she sat there for days and painted kids' faces all day long. I have 20 amazing stories of people taking care of each other for every one incident of someone stealing, or someone taking somebody's stuff, or someone trying to get into somebody else's business, or someone laying their hands on somebody.
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, when that wasn't the case. Because if there was, we would have completely lost control of the Dome. And we never did. People just kind of hung on, through the heat and through everything, until they got on a bus and left.