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Do You Know What It Means to Myth New Orleans?

A year ago, Hurricane Katrina left the Crescent City devastated—and also left a damaging legacy of media misinformation and stereotyping

By Katy Reckdahl

Callers to the New Orleans Conven-tion 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 firsthand. 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.

Every day, 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.

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,” she says. “We heard that people in New Orleans were dangerous, that they were killing each other in the convention center.” 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.”

Disaster myth has real consequences, says Peek. For instance, instead of simply sending food and water to those in the convention center, officials waited until those supplies could be escorted by soldiers with machine guns.

National Guard Lt. Col. Jacques Thibodeaux, who led the rescue mission into the convention center on Friday, recalls that the city had reported “lawlessness, no food and water, desperation.” So the Guard assembled a force of 1,000 soldiers and 250 police officers, all armed. Behind that came 25 to 30 tractor-trailer trucks of food and MREs that had arrived that morning, driven in by National Guardsmen and FEMA contractors. At noon that day, the procession left the Dome, traveled a dozen blocks down Poydras Street, then turned right onto Convention Center Boulevard, not knowing what was ahead. “We were expecting a war zone,” says Mark Smith, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

But as the soldiers turned the corner, the crowd cheered. Within 30 minutes, the place was secured. When the troops searched all 19,000 people for weapons, they found 13, says Thibodeaux. Numbers were similar at the Dome, he says, where they had searched 39,000 people as they entered, confiscating about 50 weapons. “That gives you an idea of the lawfulness of the crowd,” he says. “We had people who were basically good people trapped in a bad situation.”

Reports of mayhem and murder, however faulty, managed to stall aid to the unevacuated people in New Orleans. “That did absolutely, without a question, affect response,” says Smith, the state Homeland Security spokesman. The official U.S. Senate report, A Nation Still Unprepared, notes that FEMA drivers and vendors with vital supplies would not enter the city without military escorts.

Brian Greene, then-head of the region’s Second Harvest Food Bank, was in constant contact with other food banks across the country, which were sending truckloads of water and food to Louisiana. Then the news stories about violence began, and he started getting calls from cross-country truck drivers. “They became afraid of Baton Rouge,” he says. “You’d have a guy from Iowa who would enter Louisiana, go as far as Alexandria, but wouldn’t go any further.”

Once again, a textbook example of disaster myth, says Peek. And even though sociologists haven’t documented anything called “rebuilding myth,” she believes that the Katrina myth lives on. “What’s the most recent national news about New Orleans? That five young men ended up dead in one night. The early narrative is extremely important because it shapes what stories will continue to be told.”

Of course, myth is complicated by reality: These young men were brutally shot, says Peek. “But I think that the murders became national news because we were told early on that New Orleans is a violent place, that its people are dangerous. These murders fit that narrative, and that’s why it became big news.”

Warren Harrity has worked with large numbers of displaced people in Afghanistan and Bosnia. He’s met families forced to leave homes where their forefathers lived for centuries, and people who fled villages bearing their family name. He sees parallels with residents of New Orleans, where extended families lived in the same neighborhoods for generations.

Harrity now heads up Katrina Aid Today, which provides case management to Katrina evacuees across the country, using a consortium of nine nonprofit organizations assembled by the United Methodist Committee on Relief and $66 million in funds donated to FEMA by foreign governments.

PHOTO: David Rae Morris

Currently, Harrity sees “a push-pull” among Katrina survivors. “The pull, of course, is home sweet home. The push not to go home is this year’s hurricane season, it’s the lack of affordable housing, it’s the shortage of schools.”

The organization’s case managers found that they couldn’t be effective advisors unless they had accurate facts about New Orleans. So, at the end of June, Katrina Aid Today sent a letter to all of its case managers, describing the difficulties still facing New Orleans residents.

A June 28, 2006, e-mail from FEMA’s transitional recovery office in Austin, Texas, advises caseworkers that the purpose of the letter is to “build awareness in evacuees about certain lifestyle considerations—i.e. availability of childcare, grocery stores, medical clinics, etc.—that should be weighed before deciding to repatriate to New Orleans.”

The letter devotes a paragraph to each topic. For instance, “Grocery and supermarkets have been slow to return to many neighborhoods. Sometimes there aren’t enough residents back in your neighborhood for a store to open and be profitable. You may have to travel a large distance to groceries. Walking to the store may not be an option.”

It also cautions those with allergies (“being in the city will only worsen your allergies”), those who require regular medical attention (“depending on your medical needs, you may have to drive across the river or even as far away as Baton Rouge”) and anyone who owns a car (“You may need to purchase a gas can in the event you cannot get gas near your home.”).

“It’s a very defeatist attitude,” says Bill Quigley, who heads up the Gillis Long Poverty Law Clinic at Loyola University in New Orleans. The United Way sent a similar e-mail to its staff, he says. “It says that you are doing your people no favor by helping them get back to New Orleans,” says Quigley. “They think that it will take three to seven years before people will be able to build a semi-normal life in this city.”

Quigley believes that these warnings, which may be well-meaning, will discourage people from returning. Instead, he says these agencies should be helping people through these difficulties. “Right now, they’re saying, ‘There isn’t an opportunity, and we’re not in the business of providing an opportunity.’ But if the government refuses to help the community of working people and renters and elderly, they won’t be able to come back.”

Elected officials look at people who don’t return and think that they are “voting with their feet,” that they don’t want to come back, says Quigley. Instead, they should be helping evacuees plan for their return.

Sociologist Peek also believes that the letter takes a discouraging tone. “It feels like every paragraph ends with ‘you may not be able to . . . ,’ ” she says. “But it’s a fine line.” She has been talking with case managers in Denver, who are hearing from some evacuees that they want so badly to go home. But then they tell the story about a single mom with a 5-year-old who got back to New Orleans and called in a panic, saying “What am I going to do? There’s nowhere to live, no school for my child?” So they helped her return to Denver. “Even if only one or two evacuees have had that experience, that shapes how you talk with other evacuees,” says Peek. “But if the goal is to get people back to their homes, how can we take that frightening tone?”

Beth Butler believes the letter is not only frightening, it’s untrue. Butler is a community organizer for New Orleans ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which created the Katrina Survivors Network, an evacuee group that emphasizes evacuees’ “right to return.” Butler criticizes multiple parts of the letter, including the warning about lack of grocery stores. “The Lower Ninth Ward didn’t have a supermarket before the storm,” says Butler. “It had corner stores and, yes, they’re more expensive, but they always were.”

Not everyone sees the letter as discouraging. Even people living in New Orleans can’t agree about what’s accurate. Part of the difficulty is that the recovery varies widely from neighborhood to neighborhood and sometimes even from block to block.

The letter seems realistic, says Rafael Duboe, who owns Regal Automotive on St. Claude Avenue and agrees with the assertion that many mechanics are lagging a week or more. “Right now, I am behind,” he says, looking at the row of cars outside his garage. Donald Mills used to run a car wash a block away, on St. Bernard Avenue. He sees “nothing inaccurate” in the Katrina Aid Today letter. “It’s only an alert,” he says. “It’s telling people to stay on their toes.” Antoinette Allen, who grew up nearby, stops to scan the letter as she runs into the corner store with her kids to get two cans of pork and beans and some hot dogs. Nothing wrong with that letter, she says. “They’re just talking about what’s really going on.”

ACORN’s Butler says the myths about New Orleans extend to its people. “Doesn’t everyone from out of town think that everyone who was rescued from the roof in the Ninth Ward was poor, including Fats Domino?”

Butler felt belittled as an evacuee in Baton Rouge. “I kept saying we should print up T-shirts saying ‘Ninth Ward Marauders,’ ” she says. “People saw the exaggerated news accounts and viewed people from New Orleans as criminals.”

Early on, the general public wanted to make sure Katrina evacuees weren’t getting handouts. Amy Liu, deputy director of the Brookings Institution, an independent research and policy institute, remembers being a guest on a National Public Radio call-in show in November. “Three callers in a row said, ‘I don’t understand why we have to give more money to these families,’ ” says Liu. “That sentiment was out there even three months after the storm.” Liu says that Brookings has been careful to emphasize that many evacuees lost everything. “But people don’t like money that has no incentives attached to it,” she says.

Peek says people have formed an image of Katrina evacuees. Many Denver evacuees she interviews say, “I can’t get a job because I’m from New Orleans.” As a result, some job applicants have started lying about being from New Orleans in order to get hired.

That’s because potential Denver employers assume that if someone is from New Orleans, they must be poor, they must be immoral, and they must be violent. After all, everyone heard how much poverty New Orleans has; they know that New Orleans is known for corruption, partying, drinking, and drugs; and they saw the news stories about violence. “It doesn’t matter that those stories about violence were proven untrue,” says Peek. “Because new employers and new neighbors only remember those negative stories.”

Debunking these myths isn’t simple, because there is some truth behind them. After all, New Orleans has problems with its schools, it elects dirty politicians, and its per capita murder rate is, and has been, extraordinarily high. So what is the line between ignoring the problems and creating a stigma? “New Orleans has this spotlight,” says Peek. “The challenge here is to figure out how to use this spotlight to repair some of the problems.”

Katy Reckdahl is a freelance writer and former reporter for Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. She gave birth to her son, Hector, in a New Orleans hospital on Aug. 28, 2005, the day before Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast; they were evacuated three days later. Reckdahl recently returned to New Orleans after being awarded a yearlong Soros media grant to cover the effects of Katrina on the city’s poorest neighborhoods and residents.


Still struggling: April Chamberlain with her son Michael and daughter Bianca.

Gulf Coast No More

A family who fled Mississippi struggle to get back on their feet in the Capital Region


Warnings about Hurricane Katrina went mostly unheeded, says April Chamberlain, because down where she was living, in Gulfport, Miss., they had heard it all before. In 2004, there were warnings about a hurricane that led many people to evacuate, and nothing happened.

“A lot of people didn’t bother [for Katrina] because they didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was,” says the 33-year-old mother of three. Besides, even if people had wanted to evacuate, most of them couldn’t. “It takes a lot of money to evacuate. Especially when you have the working class down there, people who don’t have extra money. It’s like they are living on their bill money. That’s what we lived on, my bill money, my rent money. I hadn’t paid my rent yet, my water, my electric yet.”

Who can afford to evacuate, she asks, when you are living paycheck-to-paycheck?

Chamberlain had moved to Gulfport, Miss., in 2002 with her son Michael and daughter Bianca (then 12 and 4, respectively). They moved to be closer to Chamberlain’s mother, who had taken a job at a Gulf Coast casino. Before that, they had lived in Minnesota in a small town halfway between Minneapolis and Duluth.

She liked Gulfport, she says, to a point. She was able to spend a lot of time outside playing with her kids. They enjoyed going to the river and swinging on the rope swing. But it was a city, which was hard to get used to at first. She avoided the beach because it was dirty, and the water, she says, was gross. And she never really liked all the casinos. After a while, though, she got used to her adopted city, and settled in to make a home. Now, she says, she would never go back, especially not to live. It is just too close to water.

After Katrina, Chamberlain relocated to the Capital Region to be with her younger sister, Kristi. She hoped that this connection could help her find a job and a place to live. She had hoped she would be able to get past the nightmare her family lived through.

When it became obvious that Gulfport was in the path of Hurricane Katrina, Chamberlain abandoned her house, gathering her kids, their three cats and two dogs into a hotel room at the Best Western where she worked. The hotel had been there for 75 years, and she figured it had a better chance than her house of surviving the storm.

“We started feeling the storm at three in the morning,” she says. At the beginning, she was able to leave the door open for the breeze. It was August in the South, after all, and the windows didn’t open. But the storm winds got stronger and the door started slamming against the wall, so they had to shut it.

“Then the lights went out, the AC went out,” she says. “That’s when we started to suffer. The kitties were freaking out. The dogs were going nuts. I thought we were all going to die of a heat stroke.”

After seven grueling hours, the storm lifted. Her family wandered out into the streets, into the fungus-infected water, in a daze. The devastation, she says, was unbelievable. “There were so many trees and power lines down. Whatever was not boarded up was totally destroyed, there was so much damage to everything.”

“It was overwhelming.” And, she says, it was heartbreaking to discover that their house had been looted. “My kids’ bedroom sets were gone, televisions, VCRs, DVDs, all the stuff that you work so hard for, everything that was worth anything, everything was gone. And I was like, ‘Who the hell has the time to do that during a hurricane?’

“My little girl loves Scooby Doo,” Chamberlain continues. “And of course she had a big collection of Scooby Doo and all that stuff got stolen. She was totally devastated. She was like, ‘I can’t believe they stole my Scooby Doo.’ She had a huge Scooby Doo pillow and someone stole it. I was like, ‘Oh man, come on.’ And I looked everywhere for that thing, and you can’t find it, they don’t make it anymore.”

They tried to stay the night at the house but couldn’t. It was too hot. There was no electricity, of course. The house had been completely flooded and there were fleas in the carpet, spiders everywhere. It was disgusting, she says. Bianca couldn’t sleep and cried all night.Chamberlain decided that she had had enough of Mississippi. She couldn’t put her kids through that misery any longer.

She had heard that there was gasoline 70 miles north in Hattiesburg. So she loaded up her kids, their animals, and a two-week supply of food into her Jeep, and began what would turn out to be a 10-day trek from Gulfport to Lafayette, La.

The drive was slow, there were many detours, and the destruction was everywhere. “People say the pictures look horrible. And I am like, ‘You have no idea.’ The pictures just do not do it justice. Pass Christian, two cities up from Gulfport, was totally wiped out—they had no town.”

When they reached Hattiesburg, they started looking for gas. They went from gas station to gas station, waiting in long lines that would wrap around blocks.

“There was just so much chaos,” Chamberlain says. “I didn’t sleep a lot, ’cause we were sleeping in our cars. I wasn’t in an area that I know.” She and her son, 15 at the time, would sleep in shifts.

“When we first got there, we waited in one line at a gas station for nine hours. And then the place shut right when we got up there. I was like, ‘You have got to be kidding me. . . . Please!’ And he’s like, ‘No.’ And I’m like, ‘You suck! What’s wrong with you people?’ I just wanted to get out of Mississippi.”

They lost three of their animals in Hattiesburg. Bianca’s 10-week-old puppy, Louie, died from drinking the polluted storm water. One of their cats died, Chamberlain believes, because of the bacteria in the air. And her son’s dog was stolen.

“You would think that people would come together at a time like that,” she says. “But they sure didn’t. It was like, all for yourself.”

The heat was unbearable, she says. Ice and water were a premium, and fighting over the limited supplies was common. She had heard on the radio of a man who had shot his sister over a bag of ice. So when a man with an ice truck came through charging $10 a bag for ice, Chamberlain bought four. “My little girl was overheating, and I needed ice.”

After a week of waiting in lines, they finally had enough gas to leave Hattiesburg. They followed the coastline from Mississippi to Lafayette, La., where they had arranged to stay with a family.

“When you crossed over from Mississippi into Louisiana, you could tell the difference. In Mississippi, you could see where Katrina had come through. None of the wooded areas were left. All of the trees were knocked down. You could smell the difference in the air. In Mississippi, you could smell death in the air.”

With the assistance of FEMA, Chamberlain flew her kids, and their two cats, from Louisiana to New York. She got a debit from Red Cross that she used to buy her kids school supplies and clothing. She was even able to use the money to buy her kids some Christmas gifts. But one year after Katrina tore across the Gulf Coast and gutted her life, she says, she is still struggling to get on her feet.

“Even now, I look at my kids,” Chamberlain says, “and I can see that they are so depressed, ’cause I’m depressed.”

“My little girl had nightmares, horrific nightmares every night,” after Katrina, she says. “She still has them, but not as much. Most nights, she does pretty good. But every now and then, she says, “Mommy, I just feel really bad about tonight.’ But most nights she’ll do pretty good. I’ll pop in a Scooby Doo movie for her.”

After many false starts, Chamberlain still has no place to live. She is trying to support herself and her two kids on a $7-an-hour job in Cobleskill and with assistance from Catholic Charities. It isn’t enough, however, and at the beginning of August, she was forced to move into Sacred Heart in Watervliet.

“I keep spinning my wheels and spinning my wheels,” she says, “and I get nowhere.”

Chamberlain is thankful for Red Cross, and Catholic Charities, she says, but what she says she needs most is a three-bedroom house that she can afford.

“I can’t wait to find a place to live,” she says, “so I can get my bearings back.”

—Chet Hardin

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