Reviewing the falsehoods, myths and misrepresentations spun by the press, politicians and pundits following Hurricane Katrina, one is reminded of Nora Ephron's bon mot: "No matter how cynical I get, I can't seem to keep up."
Most recently, we have word from the National Hurricane Center that Katrina was not a category 4 storm at all, but rather, a category 3 when it slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29. So much for the notion that the levees were built to withstand anything less than a category 4. But this news is only the latest in a string of stories correcting, amending and often reversing what we were told at the time. The string is so long that the fabric of reporting on Katrina has unraveled utterly, and it's enough to encourage caution -- if not outright cynicism -- about all reporting, particularly during emergencies.
In the hours and days after the hurricane struck, the press reported that conditions inside the Superdome and Convention Center had descended to Boschian (Hieronymous) depravity. We were told that "little babies" were being raped, and that stabbings and murders were widespread. The mayor and police chief of New Orleans repeated these rumors on television, thus transforming them from scuttlebutt to "news."
FEMA, believing the stories broadcast worldwide, showed up at the Convention Center with a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies. They were expecting, reported The Seattle Times, at least 200. How many actually died in the two locations? Six. One died of a drug overdose, another committed suicide, and four more died of natural causes. Eddie Compass, New Orleans police chief, conceded that badly needed resources, like police and rescue workers, were diverted to deal with emergencies that turned out not to exist.
Another popular convention of the Katrina aftermath was the notion that because National Guard troops were "spread thin" by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. lacked manpower to deal with a domestic crisis. But as James Robbins noted in National Review Online, only 10.2 percent of the U.S. Army, including guard and reserves, is stationed in Iraq -- fully 74.2 percent are stationed in the U.S.
If people are sure of anything, it is that poor African-Americans were hardest hit by the storm and its aftermath. There is no question that poor blacks suffered terribly, but according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of Louisiana data, those who died came from rich and poor neighborhoods in about equal numbers.