They Shoot Helicopters, Don't They?
How journalists spread rumors during Katrina.
On September 1, 72 hours after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, the Associated Press news wire flashed a nightmare of a story: "Katrina Evacuation Halted Amid Gunfire…Shots Are Fired at Military Helicopter."
The article flew across the globe via at least 150 news outlets, from India to Turkey to Spain. Within 24 hours commentators on every major American television news network had helped turn the helicopter sniper image into the disaster's enduring symbol of dysfunctional urbanites too depraved to be saved.
Golfer Tiger Woods spoke for many of us on September 2 when he remarked, during a tournament in Boston, that "it's just unbelievable…how people are behaving, with the shootings and now the gang rapes and the gang violence and shooting at helicopters who are trying to help out and rescue people."
Like many early horror stories about ultra-violent New Orleans natives, whether in their home city or in far-flung temporary shelters, the A.P. article turned out to be false. Evacuation from the city of New Orleans was never "halted," according to officials from the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Louisiana National Guard. The only helicopter airlifts stopped were those by a single private company, Acadian Ambulance, from a single location: the Superdome. And Acadian officials, who had one of the only functional communications systems in all of New Orleans during those first days, were taking every opportunity to lobby for a massive military response.
More important, there has been no official confirmation that a single military helicopter over New Orleans–let alone a National Guard Chinook in the pre-dawn hours of September 1–was fired upon. "I was at the Superdome for eight days, and I don't remember hearing anything about a helicopter getting shot at," says Maj. Ed Bush, public affairs officer for the Louisiana Air National Guard. With hundreds of Guard troops always on duty inside and outside the Superdome before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina, if there had been gunfire, "we would have heard it," Bush maintains. "The instant reaction over the radio would have been overwhelming."
The Air Force, to which the Air National Guard reports, also has zero record of helicopter sniping. "We investigated one incident and it turned out to have been shooting on the ground, not at the helicopter," Air Force Maj. Mike Young told The New York Times on September 29.
Aside from the local National Guard, the other government agency with scores of helicopters over New Orleans was the U.S. Coast Guard, which rescued more than 33,000 people. "Coast Guard helicopters," says spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet, "were not fired on during Hurricane Katrina rescue operations."
How about the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the all-volunteer, Air Force?assisting network of around 58,000 private Cessna pilots, 68 of whom flew a total of 833 aid missions after the hurricane? "To my knowledge," says CAP Public Affairs Manager Jim Tynan, "none of our pilots on any Katrina-related mission were taking ground fire."
That doesn't mean that people weren't shooting at helicopters. As Lt. Comdr. Tim Tobiasz, the Coast Guard's operations officer for New Orleans airspace, told me, "It's tough to hear in a helicopter. You have two turbine engines….I don't know if you could hear a gunshot below." And the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms arrested a 21-year-old man in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans on September 6 for firing a handgun out his window while helicopters flew nearby.
But the basic premise of the article that introduced the New Orleans helicopter sniper to a global audience was dead wrong, just like so many other widely disseminated Katrina nightmares. No 7-year-old rape victim with a slit throat was ever found, even though the atrocity was reported in scores of newspapers. The Convention Center freezer was not stacked with 30 or 40 dead bodies, nor was the Superdome a live-in morgue. (An estimated 10 people died inside the two buildings combined, and only one was slain, according to the best data from National Guard officials at press time.)
Tales of rapes, carjackings, and gang violence by Katrina refugees quickly circulated in such evacuee centers as Baton Rouge, Houston, and Leesville, Louisiana–and were almost as quickly debunked.
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."