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Separating fact from fiction in Katrina’s wake

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, reports of lawlessness, murder and mayhem were rampant. NBC's Martin Savidge separates fact from fiction.

On Sept. 1, the evacuation at the Superdome was halted amidst reports of shots fired at a helicopter.

A month later, the National Guard says there is no physical evidence it ever happened.

After the storm, inside the Superdome and Convention Center, desperate evacuees told stories of rape and murder.

"People getting killed," said one man carrying a 10-month-old baby. "People getting raped."

We spent three days at the Convention Center reporting on the human suffering. We heard the terrible accounts of rape and murder, even the killing of children, but the only deaths we reported were the ones we actually saw.

"We were certainly hearing rumors," says Col. Thomas Beron, who was in charge of up to 700 Louisiana National Guardsmen overseeing the crowd of up to 30,000 at the Superdome. "But there wasn't a homicide, for instance," he says. "There wasn't a serious assault that was reported to us. So I think that's part of the inaccuracies that came out during the event."

But evacuees weren't the only ones spreading inaccuracies.

"They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people," said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Sept. 6 on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” "That's the tragedy."

The day before, on NBC's "Today" show, Nagin made his frightening projection of the dead.

"It wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000," he said.

Currently, the confirmed death toll in Louisiana stands at 885.

Then there were the rumors in New Orleans that as much as half of the police force had failed to show up for work after the hurricane. Tuesday, police officials say the actual number of officers who left their posts during the storm was 249, or 15 percent.

Tuesday, the mayor admitted officials added to the misinformation.

"As far as exaggerations, I was in the moment," said Nagin.

But did reports of murder and mayhem delay aid for those in desperate need?

"When I talked to the people in the Convention Center, I was getting a much different story," said Nagin.

In the early days after the storm, truth may have been just one more casualty of Katrina's wrath.