Reconstructing the Story of the Storm: Hurricane Katrina at Five
Five years later we're still coming to terms with what happened in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, and thereafter, struggling to get the facts straight and to figure out what it said about race, disaster and even human nature. How we remember Hurricane Katrina is also how we'll prepare for future disasters, so getting the story right matters for survival as well as for justice and history.
In August 2005, 90,000 square miles of the Gulf Coast were devastated; more than 1,800 people died; 182,000 homes were severely damaged in New Orleans alone, where 80 percent of the city was flooded. Hundreds of thousands went into an exile from which some will never return. A great and justified bitterness arose in African-Americans who were demonized by the media and the government and who felt that they had not been treated as citizens or even as fellow human beings. An African-American woman at an antiwar rally in the nation's capital a month later carried a sign saying, "No Iraqis left me on a roof to die."
The widely told initial version of Hurricane Katrina was a lie and a slander, based on rumors and racism, and it's been falling apart steadily ever since. For the past two years an antithetical version has been overtaking it, one that tells the real story of who went crazy and who was in danger in the days after the hurricane. It has gained more ground than I ever imagined it would, and the history books may yet get this one right.
When the Media Went Mad
The story of Hurricane Katrina as originally constructed served authoritarianism, racism and a generally grim view of human nature. It was first told hysterically, as though New Orleans had been hit by a torrent of poor black people or had become, as Maureen Dowd of the New York Times put it then, "a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs." An overwrought Huffington Post columnist even spread rumors of cannibalism, while many major media outlets repeated rumors of snipers firing on helicopters. These rumors were never substantiated, but they interfered with the rescue operations nonetheless.
The gist of these stories was that in the absence of authority, people went berserk; the implied solution was the reimposition of authority—armed, ruthless and intense. Heavily armed Blackwater mercenaries were dispatched to New Orleans, where, as Jeremy Scahill reported in this magazine, they shot at citizens with little fear of repercussion. While the focus was on young men of color as the peril, police and white vigilantes went on a murder spree that was glossed over at the time.
The AP reported on September 1, 2005, "Mayor Ray Nagin ordered 1,500 police officers to leave their search-and-rescue mission Wednesday night and return to the streets of the beleaguered city to stop looting that has turned increasingly hostile." Only two days after the catastrophe struck, while thousands were still stuck on roofs, in attics, on overpasses, on second and third stories and in isolated buildings on high ground in flooded neighborhoods, the mayor chose protecting property over human life. There was no commerce, no electricity, no way to buy badly needed supplies. Though unnecessary things were taken, much of what got called looting was the stranded foraging for survival by the only means available.
The mainstream media fractured under the pressure of reporting such a huge and complex story. Journalists on the ground often wrote empathic and accurate stories and broke out of their "objective" roles to advocate for the desperate and rail against systemic failures. Meanwhile, further away, credulous television, online and print reporters spread lurid rumors about baby rapists and mass murders and treated minor and sometimes justified thefts as the end of civilization. They used words like "marauding" and "looting" as matches, struck over and over until they got a conflagration of opinion going.
They, along with government officials at all levels, created the overheated atmosphere of fear and hostility that turned the task of rescuing stranded people into an attempt to control a captive population. New Orleans became a prison city; the trapped citizens became prisoners without rights. Those in the Superdome, for example, were prevented from leaving the stinking, scorching zone as people dropped from heat and dehydration. The literal prisoners, adult and juvenile, in the New Orleans jails were abandoned to thirst, hunger and rising floodwaters. Hospitals packed with the dying were not allowed to evacuate; citizens were not allowed to walk out of New Orleans on the bridge to Gretna because the sheriff on the other side was there with cronies and guns, keeping them out.
The stories of social breakdown were quietly retracted in September and October 2005, but the damage had been done. A great many found new confirmation of the old stereotypes that in times of crisis people—particularly poor and nonwhite people—revert to a Hobbesian war of each against each.
The Crimes That Counted
If you believe what happened after Hurricane Katrina was all about the masses running amok, then the proper response is pretty much the vigilante one: arm yourself, treat your neighbor as your enemy, shoot first, ask questions later. But the evidence suggests that the people running amok were the ones who were supposed to protect the public. They were the sheriff on that bridge to Gretna, the corrupt and overwrought policemen who shot unarmed civilians and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who said, "I have one message for these hoodlums: these troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will."
Real people got caught in the crossfire. Take Donnell Herrington, a 33-year-old former Brink's truck driver who stayed behind to help his grandparents and who later rescued many others by boat from their flooded housing project. Herrington was walking to the evacuation site in Algiers Point when a white vigilante with a shotgun attempted to murder him. Herrington was shot in the neck, hit so hard the blast lifted him off the ground, and then shot again in the back as he tried to escape. His friend and cousin, who were walking with him, were also injured by the buckshot and then chased down by racists who terrorized them. An African-American couple in the neighborhood drove Herrington to the nearest hospital, where a surgeon stitched him up. According to that surgeon, Herrington nearly bled to death from pellets to his jugular.
His assailants were part of an organized militia that presumed any and all black men were looters and decided that they were justified in administering the ad hoc death penalty for suspected or potential petty theft. No one reported on these vigilante crimes in the first round of coverage.