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New Orleans struggles with image problems

New Orleans law enforcement officials now say the most apocalyptic reports from the week after Hurricane Katrina were nothing more than rumors, fanned by fear, spread sometimes by the city's own leadership.
Rich Lenz stands beside his belongings, which he and his brother, John, carried from his house that was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina, for clean-up in the Vista Park neighborhood of New Orleans, on Dec. 13.Chitose Suzuki / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Karen Conway looks up from the muscular cup of coffee she is nursing at the French Quarter landmark Cafe du Monde and raises both eyebrows, her green eyes going wide.

This, she says, is the look she got from friends back home in Florissant, Mo., when she told them she planned to visit New Orleans with her husband — her small contribution to the epic rebuilding of the city.

"They said, Why would you ever want to go back to that place?" she says. "They just think it's a wasteland. They just kept bringing up everything they saw on TV that week — all the shooting and the killings and those people looting the stores."

"That week" was the days after Hurricane Katrina plowed into New Orleans and overwhelmed its levees, and the nation believed it had devolved into a maelstrom of rapes and murders — a city out of control, a city of savages.

Some of it was true: New Orleans was indeed a lawless city that week. People looted, sometimes for bread and water, sometimes for televisions and DVDs. There was shooting. There was death.

But law enforcement officials now say the most apocalyptic reports from that week — tales of bodies stacked in freezers, of babies being raped — amounted to nothing more than rumors, fanned by fear, spread sometimes by the city's own leadership.

Those are the images that were branded on the national consciousness after Katrina. And they have left some New Orleans residents — people who deeply love this place — worrying about whether their city has been scarred, unfairly and forever.

This question is not exactly a top priority for the few New Orleanians who are returning to the city to empty out their flood-ravaged homes and begin mapping out what happens next, or to find out whether home even exists any more.

But some of them, after relating their personal stories of flight from the storm and the loss they found in its wake, confess to fretting about the damage that may have been done to their city's image.

They wonder whether New Orleans, always and still symbolized by jazz and beignets and bontemps, now also stands for chaos, for a place whose people turned on one another barbarically at a time of great desperation.

‘It should not be allowed to die’
"They were searing images to the rest of the country," says an orange-gloved, black booted Rich Lenz, 46, emptying his home in the heavily flooded Vista Park neighborhood of waterlogged belongings. "They were seeing the worst."

He says it would be a shame if the reputation stuck to New Orleans.

"It is a unique American city," he says, "and it should not be allowed to die."

The horror stories that came out of New Orleans during the late-summer week after Katrina were almost impossible to believe — but then what was really impossible after an American city had been placed almost entirely under water?

On Sept. 1, New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass reported of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center: "We have individuals who are getting raped; we have individuals who are getting beaten."

Also Sept. 1, Acadian Ambulance, charged with removing the sick and injured from the Superdome, suspended flights after a report (circulated in the media, including The Associated Press) that a rescue helicopter had been fired on.

On Sept. 6, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans quoted an Arkansas National Guardsman as saying the convention center's freezer was stacked with 30 to 40 bodies, including "a 7-year-old with her throat cut."

That same week, Mayor Ray Nagin told Oprah Winfrey: "We have people standing out there, that have been in that ... Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."

Later examinations by reporters and government officials have found the reports of widespread violence in New Orleans in the week after the storm to be highly exaggerated and, in many cases, flatly false.

‘There was a lot of disinformation’
Capt. Juan Quinton, a New Orleans police spokesman, said his department had no official reports of rape. He said police had three reports of homicide — a body with a gunshot wound that was dumped near Interstate 10, a 22-year-old man killed by a gunshot on Leboeuf Street and a woman stabbed to death on Marigny Street.

The district attorney is investigating two others, a homicide at the Superdome and another at the convention center, said spokeswoman Leatrice Dupre.

Four people were fatally shot by police in the storm's aftermath, including two who police say were among gunmen who opened fire on contractors traveling across the Danzinger Bridge on their way to make repairs.

The National Guard was never able to substantiate reports that military helicopters were fired on, said Sgt. 1st Class Carlos Sanchez, a spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard.

"Basically it was just that people heard shots," he says. "They didn't know at who and what. And then a lot of it ended up coming from second-hand communications — somebody else told them. There was a lot of disinformation."

He said some of the gunfire was likely from people trapped on their rooftops, firing shots into the air in hopes of attracting the attention of rescuers.

Still, stories of people firing on rescue helicopters have persisted.

"Even now, in Washington, you still see senators and congressmen referring back to the stories," he says.

‘We're showing the other side’
Tonia Lewis, 36, whose home in the Lower Ninth Ward was destroyed by Katrina's floods, is particularly bothered by the lingering image of New Orleans as a city of greedy looters — and of her own neighborhood as a collection of improverished savages.

"They were saying it's all a poor area, different things about how bad the crime was," she says. "Let me tell you: Crime is bad in Arlington, Texas."

That is the city where she has lived since the hurricane. To counter what it says is a lack of a well-crafted message from elected officials in Louisiana, the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau is rolling out a new image campaign highlighting the city's recovery.

"We have focused only on the negatives, and not enough on incredible stories of the human spirit and of rebirth and rebuilding," says Steve Perry, head of the bureau. "That's equally important as the tragedy."

One of the campaign's goals is to paint a visit to New Orleans as patriotic — not unlike New York City's approach after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"What we're focusing on is the images that were in people's minds being replaced by fresh images, to make way for the rebirth of New Orleans," Perry says. "We're showing the other side."

‘A few bad apples’
Of course, alongside its coffee and chicory, this city has long had a reputation as a haven for corruption in government and the police force, and as a somewhat violent place.

But people who live here stress that the violence that actually did occur after Katrina struck could have taken place anywhere.

They say it has much more to do with government neglect after the storm than anything innate in the population.

For example, "If you get a bunch who are on drugs, and all of a sudden they don't have them, and there are Black Hawks in the sky, water in the street, they're going to go a little crazy," says Shannon Sharpe, a New Orleans real estate agent.

She concludes: "Not everybody here is bad. You get a few bad apples and everything gets turned around."

Uncredible official sources
Compass, the police chief who spoke of babies being raped, resigned from the force Sept. 27, saying he was "going on in another direction that God has for me."

A spokeswoman for Nagin has said the mayor relied on other officials for information about conditions at the convention center and Superdome.

Journalists learned a hard lesson from Katrina: Ask hard questions, even when the information is coming from high places.

"When its the police chief telling you that there are rapes going on of cildren, you don't tend to say 'How do you know that?'" said Scott Libin of the Poynter Institute, a news media think tank. "We tended to assume that these, after all, were credible sources. It wasn't just coming from one place. ...

"I did see conscientious efforts by journalists to go back and investigate and set the record straight. I saw them examining how it had happened."

‘We got through it’
In fact, many national news organizations, including The Associated Press, have published new accounts of the reported violence in attempts to set the record straight.

But some in New Orleans say they worry those corrected reports are being ignored.

One of them is Ron Lemoine, 52, who has lived in New Orleans for nine years and was strolling through Jackson Square, past the famed St. Louis Cathedral, on a sparkling recent late-autumn afternoon.

Asked about the images of New Orleans as a cauldron of violence, Lemoine seemed sadly resigned, then downright insulted.

He says he blames the media for circulating reports that were overblown.

"We're trying to rebuild this city, and that's what's stuck in people's heads — that we acted almost subhuman, cannibals or something," he says. "We got through it. We did the best we could. We were left behind."