Video: Katrina rumor hotline

If you've ever had a job that includes dealing with the public, you probably will not be surprised by tonight's number one story. 

Years ago, I was one of the people who had to answer the phones at the ABC television station in Boston.  During the Olympic broadcasts, people called asking when the Olympic bowling would be on.  People called asking to talk to Howard Cosell personally.  People called asking where the soccer was being played.  And when told the Los Angeles Coliseum, they then asked, what part of Boston is Los Angeles in? 

Harrison County, Mississippi -- that's Gulfport -- has established a rumor control hot line.  It's where people can call to get the latest gossip debunked.  Examples about Hurricane Katrina, obviously, that a shipment of chicken washed up on the beaches of Biloxi and evacuees were eating, that because of the fatalities, mosquitoes were now spreading incurable diseases, that every resident was going to get a check for $2,000, that there were sharks swimming in the streets of New Orleans. 

Well, there was one shark, a three-footer who was seen shortly after the flooding started.  But that's been it, we think. 

Larry Leinhauser, who works with the rumor control hot line on loan, so to speak, from the public affairs office at the Florida Emergency Management Task Force, joined 'Countdown' on Tuesday to talk about what he has heard.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

KEITH OLBERMANN:  I mentioned the chicken carcasses and the sharks and the mosquitoes.  Are those the strangest rumors that you have been asked about or, lord help us, are there worse?

LARRY LEINHAUSER, RUMOR CONTROL HOT LINE: Those are some of the more stranger ones. 

You tend to get rather extreme rumors when incidents like this occur. And those were some of the more bizarre ones we had. 

OLBERMANN:  I'm sure you must ask this question 400 times a day.  So, I will make it 401.  Where do people get this stuff? 

LEINHAUSER:  It generally generates from a small portion of truth, which, in the chickens, were true.  There was a considerable amount of chickens, frozen chickens, if you will, in the port area that got washed up on the beach and down the road and everything. 

And I'm sure the critters and fowl were eating it fowl were eating them, but no humans were consuming.  There were no humans there. 

OLBERMANN:  I understand that the mornings are the time that you get the heaviest volume and maybe the weirdest volume.  Why the mornings? 

LEINHAUSER:  Because they've had all night to think about it, I assume.  Rumors tend to start to spread.  They get more exaggerated.  It's our job to basically squelch those rumors, which is why the EOC set up the rumor control phone.  They can call in and find out what the realities are. 

OLBERMANN:  I gathered also from what I read on this subject that the wonderful world of talk radio has contributed to this as well.  Is that correct?  Do you have to knock down a lot of things that people say they've heard on the radio somewhere? 

LEINHAUSER:  Yes, sir.   One of the jobs of the public affairs division is to sort of monitor the rumor mill and the local media to see what they're putting out.  And I think a lot of people had some sleep deprivation working and tended to sort of begin to fall into and go along with some of the stuff that was being propagated.  However, ninety-nine and nine-tenths of it were untrue. 

OLBERMANN:  Are the majority of the calls you get from Gulfport and the rest of Mississippi?  Or are they national?  Are they from people who are nowhere near the damaged areas? 

LEINHAUSER:  Mostly, it is local.  There is some national media calling to confirm, much like what we're doing now, but not quite as exaggerated.  But just, basically, it's mostly local people that are calling to find out what the status is of a variety of rumors. 

OLBERMANN:  Do they divide into which group is crazier?  Are the local callers more reasonable?  Are they asking practical questions and those of us from outside the area are the ones asking about whether or not there's, you know, sharks driving up Main Street? 

LEINHAUSER:  I think it's about 50/50, actually, depending on which media and which locals calling in.  But it tends to be an interesting mix. 

OLBERMANN:  The idea for doing this, first off, how do you get the word out to people who are still fighting to get their electricity back that this phone number is available? 

LEINHAUSER:  That's one of the logistical challenges.  What we did initially is, with the help of the National Guard, local law enforcement and every other entity here, was to pass out fliers with primary information numbers and primary information in general.  And from there, we keep updating it daily until lines and power are back up.  And then they can call in and use the rumor line.

They actually got the phones back up fairly quick.  They did.  However, it took awhile to get it out logistically throughout the area and Harrison County by handheld delivered fliers. 

OLBERMANN:  Did you bring the idea with you from Florida?  Is this something you have worked with before? 

LEINHAUSER:  Actually, I was asked that earlier.  And, actually, there's a component of rumor control in every emergency operation center, or there should be.  It's part of the functions of the ESF, or emergency services functions, that they do, is to squelch that. 

And you also have a citizens information center, which answers factual information.  Rumor control is set up designed specifically for eliminating and basically dissipating rumors that are simply fabricated or based in partial truth. 

OLBERMANN:  It`s a great idea.  Larry Leinhauser, helping to dispel the vast rumor mill along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina, thanks for your time.  And I hope they don`t get any weirder than they already have. 

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