updated 9/19/2005 8:14:57 AM ET 2005-09-19T12:14:57

Ten thousand dead or more. New Orleans underwater for months. A “closed” sign across the city’s bridges, barring all except emergency workers for who knows how long.

The dire predictions of death and devastation that came after Hurricane Katrina have, thankfully, proven to be not quite so dire. While unquestionably one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, both in terms of the human and financial toll, parts of the city will re-open this week. And, so far, the number of deaths seem to be substantially fewer than feared — hundreds rather than thousands.

But even as these disparities have brought a sigh of relief, they’ve raised more questions: Were the numbers inflated? Was the media too uncritical in accepting such catastrophic forecasts? What are the ripple effects — in the response, in public fears, in political blame — from worst-case predictions?

Human nature or political tactic?
Some disaster experts say the explanation is simple — an honest effort from stunned officials to get a handle on a catastrophe. Others say it’s human nature to brace for the worst, a tendency reinforced by media hungry for numbers and a political system that pours attention and money toward the biggest problems.

“When we’re in shock we tend to see and fear the worst. When we see a few hundred we think there are ten times that number that we just don’t see,” said Richard S. Olson, an expert on the politics of disaster at Florida International University in Miami. “It seems to be a phenomenon that goes with shock.”

Even now, the final picture of Hurricane Katrina’s damage is far from clear, from environmental dangers to the fate of evacuees to the dead still uncounted. Clarity won’t arrive for weeks or months.

“Disasters are very hard to get your arms around early on,” said Jerome Hauer, who was New York City’s emergency services director and helped respond during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “In the early stages of a disaster, you can either underestimate it, as FEMA did, or you can overestimate it as the mayor did.”

It’s wiser to overestimate and scale back, he said, then underestimate and open the door to inaction and greater suffering for those caught in the storm.

Debating the body count
During Katrina, federal officials were cautious and close-lipped about the scale of the devastation. In contrast, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who at one point broke down and demanded that federal officials “get off your asses and do something,” later warned: “It wouldn’t be unreasonable to have 10,000” dead.

That prediction appears to go far beyond what the numbers indicate at this point. But it wasn’t at all out of bounds from expectations, said Walter Gillis Peacock, a disaster expert at the Hazards Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University.

Olson was less charitable: “You had local officials who were clearly traumatized. The 10,000 number was picked out of the air by someone who was clearly on his way to post traumatic stress syndrome, and understandably so.”

But should that estimate have been reported and repeated by the press? Some, like Olson, said the media added to the confusion; others said official estimates, even if they turn out wrong, are part of the story.

“The audience isn’t an idiot. The audience can figure out that the mayor didn’t have an actual count,” said Jeff Jarvis, a media critic, blogger and former TV critic for TV Guide and People. “They reported what officials said, with no basis in fact to question that in any way. Are they not supposed to report it?”

Hunger for numbers
Hauer countered that the media demands numbers, so even if officials are reluctant to guess they’re egged on.

“Everyone calls, ‘Well, how many do you think? ... Give me a guess-timate,”’ he said, recalling the questions after Sept. 11. “People like to have numbers that they can quote and that they can use.”

The projections create expectations and a series of ripple effects. In New Orleans, federal officials brought in 25,000 body bags. A temporary morgue was set up that could handle up to 2,000 dead.

As military, law enforcement and other responders methodically went through the city, spray-painting homes with the numbers of survivors rescued or corpses found, the discoveries eased some of the fears.

“There’s nothing at all in the magnitude we anticipated,” said Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, commander of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, after the first street-by-street sweeps.

The swirl of estimates, expectations and rumors weren’t confined to the dead. New Orleans’ police chief announced on local radio that there had been rapes, murders and beatings among the crowd trapped at the convention center. But reliable figures on deaths, attacks or even the total number of people at the center are still unavailable.

The shifting landscape echoes the worries and miscounts after Sept. 11, too, when estimates of the potential dead soared, and were repeatedly lowered as those listed as missing and feared dead were discovered.

“Now that the actual number appears to be lower, that doesn’t make this any less of a tragedy or any less of a horrendous failing of our government,” Jarvis said. “Now it’s a tragic revision. So, it’s not as bad as we thought, so it’s OK? Of course it’s not.”

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