For three anguished days the world's headlines blared that the Superdome and Convention Center had descended into anarchy. But the truth is that while conditions were squalid for the thousands stuck there, much of the violence NEVER HAPPENED.
After five days managing near-riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Following days of internationally reported killings, rapes and gang violence inside the Dome, the doctor from FEMA - Beron doesn't remember his name - came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.
"I've got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome," Beron recalls the doctor saying.
The real total was six, Beron said.
Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped to his death in an apparent suicide, said Beron, who personally oversaw the turning over of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop melting bags of ice. State health department officials in charge of body recovery put the official death count at the Dome at 10, but Beron said the other four bodies were found in the street near the Dome, not inside it. Both sources said no one had been killed inside.
At the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, just four bodies were recovered, despites reports of corpses piled inside the building. Only one of the dead appeared to have been slain, said health and law enforcement officials.
That the nation's front-line emergency management believed the body count would resemble that of a bloody battle in a war is but one of scores of examples of myths about the Dome and the Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials, including the mayor and police superintendent. As the fog of warlike conditions in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath has cleared, the vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know.
"I think 99 percent of it is bulls---," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside the Dome. "Don't get me wrong, bad things happened, but I didn't see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything. ... Ninety-nine percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved." Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state Health and Human Services Department administrator overseeing the body recovery operation, said his teams were inundated with false reports about the Dome and Convention Center.
"We swept both buildings several times, because we kept getting reports of more bodies there," Cataldie said. "But it just wasn't the case."
Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said authorities had confirmed only four murders in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina - making it a typical week in a city that anticipated more than 200 homicides this year. Jordan expressed outrage at reports from many national media outlets that suffering flood victims had turned into mobs of unchecked savages.
"I had the impression that at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred at the two sites," he said. "It's unfortunate we saw these kinds of stories saying crime had taken place on a massive scale when that wasn't the case. And they (national media outlets) have done nothing to follow up on any of these cases, they just accepted what people (on the street) told them. ... It's not consistent with the highest standards of journalism."
As floodwaters forced tens of thousands of evacuees into the Dome and Convention Center, news of unspeakable acts poured out of the nation's media: evacuees firing at helicopters trying to save them; women, children and even babies raped with abandon; people killed for food and water; a 7-year-old raped and killed at the Convention Center. Police, according to their chief, Eddie Compass, found themselves in multiple shootouts inside both shelters, and were forced to race toward muzzle flashes through the dark to disarm the criminals; snipers supposedly fired at doctors and soldiers from downtown high-rises.
In interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Compass reported rapes of "babies," and Mayor Ray Nagin spoke of "hundreds of armed gang members" killing and raping people inside the Dome. Unidentified evacuees told of children stepping over so many bodies, "we couldn't count."
The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them. Nagin told Winfrey the crowd has descended to an "almost animalistic state."
Four weeks after the storm, few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The piles of bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines say that although anarchy reigned at times and people suffered unimaginable indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened. Military, law enforcement and medical workers agree that the flood of evacuees - about 30,000 at the Dome and an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 at the Convention Center - overwhelmed their security personnel. The 400 to 500 soldiers in the Dome could have been easily overrun by increasingly agitated crowds, but that never happened, said Col. James Knotts, a midlevel commander there. Security was nonexistent at the Convention Center, which was never designated as a shelter. Authorities provided no food, water or medical care until troops secured the building the Friday after the storm. While the Convention Center saw plenty of mischief, including massive looting and isolated gunfire, and many inside cowered in fear, the hordes of evacuees for the most part did not resort to violence, as legend has it. "Everything was embellished, everything was exaggerated," said Deputy Police Superintendent Warren Riley. "If one guy said he saw six bodies, then another guy the same six, and another guy saw them - then that became 18."
Soldier shot - by himself
Inside the Dome, where National Guardsmen performed rigorous security checks before allowing anyone inside, only one shooting has been verified. Even that incident, in which Louisiana Guardsman Chris Watt of the 527th Engineer Battalion was injured, has been widely misreported, said Maj. David Baldwin, who led the team of soldiers who arrested a suspect.
Watt was attacked inside one of the Dome's locker rooms, which he entered with another soldier. In the darkness, as he walked through about six inches of water, Watt was attacked with a metal rod, a piece of a cot. But the bullet that penetrated Watt's leg came from his own gun - he accidentally shot himself in the commotion. The attacker never took his gun from him, Baldwin said. New Orleans police investigated the matter fully and sent the suspect to jail in Breaux Bridge, Baldwin said.
As for other shootings, Baldwin said, "We actively patrolled 24 hours a day, and nobody heard another shot."
Doug Thornton, regional vice president of SMG, which manages the Dome, walked the complex from before the storm until the final evacuation and kept a meticulous journal. In a Sept. 9 interview, he said he heard reports of rapes and killings, but they were unconfirmed and came from evacuees and security officials.
"We walked through the facility every day, and we didn't see all this that was being reported," said Thornton, one of about 35 Dome employees who rode out Katrina in the building and lived there in the days after the storm hit. "We never felt threatened. It's hard to determine what's real and what's not real."
Inside the Convention Center, the rumors of widespread violence have proved hard to substantiate, as well, though the masses of evacuees endured terrifying and inhumane conditions.
Jimmie Fore, vice president of the state authority that runs the Convention Center, stayed in the building with a core group of 35 employees until Sept. 1, the Thursday after Katrina. He was appalled by what he saw. Thugs hotwired 75 forklifts and electric carts and looted food and booze from every room in the building, but he said he never saw any violent crimes committed, and neither did any of his employees. Some, however, did report seeing armed men roaming the building, and Fore said he heard gunshots in the distance on at about six occasions.
NOPD Capt. Jeff Winn's 20-member SWAT team responded on about 10 occasions to calls from the Convention Center, usually after reports of shots being fired. The group found people huddled in the fetal position, lying flat on the ground to avoid bullets or running for the exits. They also heard stories of gang rapes, armed robberies and other violent crimes, but no victims ever came forward while his officers were in the building, he said.
"What's true and what's not, we don't really know," he said.
Rumors of rampant violence at the Convention Center prompted Louisiana National Guard Lt. Col. Jacques Thibodeaux put together a 1,000-man force of soldiers and police in full battle gear to secure the center Sept. 2 at about noon.
It took only 20 minutes to take control, and soldiers met no resistance, Thibodeaux said. What the soldiers found - elderly people and infants near death without food, water and medicine; crowds living in filth - shocked them more than anything they'd seen in combat zones overseas. But they found no evidence, witnesses or victims of any killings, rapes or beatings, Thibodeaux said.
Another commander at the scene, Lt. Col. John Edwards of the Arkansas National Guard, said the crowd welcomed the soldiers. "It reminded me of the liberation of France in World War II. There were people cheering; one boy even saluted," he said. "We never - never once - encountered any hostility."
One widely circulated tale, told to The Times-Picayune by a slew of evacuees and two Arkansas National Guardsmen, held that "30 or 40 bodies" were stored in a Convention Center freezer. But a formal Arkansas Guard review of the matter later found that no soldier had actually seen the corpses, and that the information came from rumors in the food line for military, police and rescue workers in front of Harrah's New Orleans Casino, said Edwards, who conducted the review.
It's possible more than four people died at the Convention Center. Fore, the center's vice president, said he saw another body outside the building early in the first week after the storm, covered in a shroud on the pavement along Julia Street, near the back of the Convention Center. It's unclear whether that body ended up in the nearby food service entrance, where the four confirmed bodies were found later.
Also, several news organizations reported the body of 91-year- old Booker T. Harris, which sat covered in a chair on Convention Center Boulevard for several days after he died on the back of a truck while being evacuated.
Just one of the dead appeared to be the victim of foul play, said Winn, one of few law enforcement officers who spent any time patrolling the Convention Center before it was secured. Winn, who did the final sweep of the building, said one body appeared to have stab wounds, but he could not be sure. Baldwin also said only one of the dead appeared to have been slain, apparently referring to the same body as Winn described. Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the Department of Health and Hospitals, also confirmed just one suspected homicide at the Convention Center, though he said the victim had been shot, not stabbed.
A Washington Post report quoted another soldier who concluded that three of the four people appeared to have been beaten to death, including an older woman in a wheelchair.
But Spc. Mikel Brooks, an Arkansas Guardsman who said he wheeled the woman's dead body into the food service entrance, said she appeared to have died of natural causes. Brooks went on to say that the woman had expired sitting next to her husband, who shocked him by asking him to bring the wheelchair back.
The Post also cited evacuee Tony Cash and three other unnamed sources saying a young boy died of an asthma attack, but multiple officials could not confirm that death.
One attack thwarted
Reports of dozens of rapes at both facilities - many allegedly involving small children - may forever remain a question mark. Rape is a notoriously underreported crime under ideal circumstances, and tracking down evidence at this point, with evacuees spread all over the country, would be nearly impossible. The same goes for reports of armed robberies at both sites.
Numerous people told The Times-Picayune that they had witnessed rapes, in particular attacks on two young girls in the Superdome ladies room and the killing of one of them, but police and military officials said they know nothing of such an incident. Soldiers and police did confirm at least one attempted rape of a child. Riley said a man tried to sexually assault a young girl, but was "beaten up" by civilians and apprehended by police. It was unclear if that incident was the one that gained wide currency among evacuees.
Baldwin, the National Guard commander of a special reaction team patrolling the Dome, also said he knew of only one attempted sexual assault of a child - but the details of his story, while similar, differed somewhat from that of Riley. It was unclear last week whether the two men spoke about the same incident.
Soldiers apprehended the assailant after a "commotion" in the bathroom exposed him, Baldwin said, but he knew nothing about the man being beaten. Furthermore, in a detail that raises questions about whether officials have full knowledge of any sex crimes, Baldwin said his men turned over one alleged child molester to New Orleans police - only to find him again inside the Dome two days later, reportedly attempting to molest other children. "We ran into the same guy a couple days later," he said. "The crowd came to us and said, 'You better do something with this guy or we're going to do something with him.' ... That kind of re-confirmed (the first allegation), when the crowd came to us saying he was putting his hands on kids."
But other accusations that have gained wide currency are more demonstrably false. For instance, no one found the body of a girl - whose age was estimated at anywhere from 7 to 13 - who, according to multiple reports, was raped and killed with a knife to the throat at the Convention Center.
Many evacuees at the Convention Center the morning of Sept. 3 treated the story as gospel, and ticked off further atrocities: a baby trampled to death, multiple child rapes.
Salvatore Hall, standing on the corner of Julia Street and Convention Center Boulevard that day, just before the evacuation, said, "They raped and killed a 10-year-old in the bathroom."
Neither he nor the many people around him who corroborated the killing had seen it themselves.
Talk of rape and killing inside the Dome was so pervasive that it prompted a steady stream of evacuees to begin leaving Aug. 31, braving thigh-high foul waters on Poydras Street. Many said they were headed back to homes in flooded neighborhoods.
"There's people getting raped and killed in there," said Lisa Washington of Algiers, who had come to the Dome with about 25 relatives and friends. "People are getting diseases. It's like we're in Afghanistan. We're fighting for our lives right now."
One of her relatives nodded. "They've had about 14 rapes in there," he said.
The official word
In many cases, authorities gave credibility to portraits of violence broadcast around the world.
Compass told Winfrey on Sept. 6 that "some of the little babies (are) getting raped" in the Dome. Nagin backed it with his own tale of horrors: ''They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.''
But both men have since pulled back to a degree.
"The information I had at the time, I thought it was credible," Compass said, conceding his earlier statements were false. Asked for the source of the information, Compass said he didn't remember.
Nagin frankly acknowledged that he doesn't know the extent of the mayhem that occurred inside the Dome and the Convention Center - and may never.
"I'm having a hard time getting a good body count," he said.
Compass said rumors had often crippled authorities' response to reported lawlessness, sending badly needed resources to respond to situations that turned out not to exist. He offered his own intensely personal example: The day after the storm, he heard "some civilians" talking about how a band of armed thugs had invaded the Ritz-Carlton hotel and started raping women - including his 24-year- old daughter, who stayed there through the storm. He rushed to the scene only to find that although a group of men had tried to enter the hotel, they weren't armed and were easily turned back by police.
Compass, however, promulgated some of the unfounded rumors himself, in interviews in which he characterized himself and his officers as outgunned warriors taking out armed bands of thugs at every turn.
"People would be shooting at us, and we couldn't shoot back because of the families," Compass told a reporter from the (Bridgeport) Connecticut Post who interviewed him at the Saints' Monday Night Football game in New York, where he was the guest of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "All we could do is rush toward the flash."
Compass added that he and his officers succeeded in wrestling 30 weapons from criminals using the follow-the-muzzle-flash technique, the story said.
"We got 30 that way," Compass was quoted as saying.
Asked about the muzzle-flash story last week, Compass said, "That really happened" to Winn's SWAT team at the Convention Center.
But Winn, when asked about alleged shootouts in a separate interview, said his unit saw muzzle flashes and heard gunshots only one time. Despite aggressively frisking a number of suspects, the team recovered no weapons. His unit never found anyone who had been shot.
Many soldiers and humanitarian workers now agree that although a number of bad actors committed violent or criminal acts, the evacuees responded well considering the hell they endured.
"These people - our people - did nothing wrong," said Sherry Watters of the state Department of Social Services, who was working with the medical unit at the Dome and noted the crowd's mounting frustration. "No human should have to live like that for even a minute."
Crowds pitch in
As the authorities finally mobilized buses to evacuate the Dome on Sept. 2, many evacuees were nearing the breaking point. Baldwin said soldiers could not have controlled the crowd much longer. They ejected a handful of people attempting to start a riot, screaming at soldiers and pushing crowds to revolt.
"We're not prisoners of war - y'all are treating us like evacuees and detainees!" he recalled one of them shouting.
But many others sought to quiet such voices. On the deck outside the Dome on Sept. 1, the day before buses arrived, preachers took it upon themselves to lead the agitated crowd in prayer and song.
"Everybody needs to help the soldiers," Baldwin recalled one of them saying. "We're all family here."
About 15 others joined the medical operation, as people collapsed from heat and exhaustion every few minutes, Baldwin said.
"Some of these guys look like thugs, with pants hanging down around their asses," he said. "But they were working their asses off, grabbing litters and running with people to the (New Orleans) Arena" next door, which housed the medical operation.
As the Dome cleared out Sept. 3, Beron, the National Guard commander, fashioned a plan to deal with the dead. He knew of the six bodies in the freezer, but expected far more. He and an Ohio National Guard commander sent 450 Ohio troops to search every nook of the Dome, top to bottom. They told them to mark locations of bodies on a map of the Dome, to rope off suspected crime scenes, and leave a chemical light sticks next to each one so they could be retrieved later.
"I fully expected to find more bodies, both homicides and natural causes," he said.
They found nothing.
Staff writers Jeff Duncan and Gwen Filosa contributed to this report.