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Myths That Flooded the Media Regarding Katrina

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Message Paul Harris

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit landfall in the Gulf and moved on. On August 30, the levees in New Orleans failed. Now, on the 5th Anniversary of Katrina, we claim to have learned many lessons from this disaster but judging by what many Americans write on blogs, comments sections in media reports, as well as reporter's follow up stories, we are destined to repeat our mistakes.

As a San Diego tourist who arrived in New Orleans on August 26,2005 when the New Orleans Saints were playing football in the Superdome, I have had plenty of time to reflect on what actually took place beginning two days later. Only if we dispel some of the myths that are still in the consciousness of society may we make sound judgments on one of the greatest tragedies in United States history.

As someone who was trapped in the Superdome, I learned how quickly misinformation and rumors can spread. This Group Think mentality and spreading of rumors still persists among those who comment, blog, write letters to the editor, and even among some major media outlets.

Below are just a few of the major myths regarding New Orleans and Katrina, all of which have been researched and disproved.

"Residents had many days to evacuate from the storm." In reality and in major weather reports, it wasn't until two days before Katrina hit landfall that there were indications that it would head to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf coast.

"Those who chose to stay got what they deserved." Actually, most disaster preparedness officials say that the evacuation in such a short time period in New Orleans was one of the highest percentages ever achieved. Also, few Americans realize that the Airport, Amtrak, and Greyhound all shut down a day prior to the mandatory evacuation. As a result, many of us could not get out of town.

"Those 100 school busses that we saw flooded in the pictures should have been used to bus the evacuees out. " First, only a bit more than half of those busses were in an operable state. Second, even if all could have been used it would have made only a small dent in the total number of residents and tourists stranded. Finally, many of those same people who proclaim that these should have been used fail to tell us who would have driven them since most of those local bus drivers had already evacuated with their families.

"There was widespread raping and murdering in the Superdome and shooting at helicopters outside of the Dome." Weeks later, public officials involved directly in this could verify no murders, no rapes, and no shooting at helicopters. Unfortunately this initial fear-based reporting adversely affected how many Americans viewed the residents of New Orleans, most likely increasing racism, ignorance, and reducing compassion.

"New Orleans sits below sea level and offers little to our nation and its economy so why rebuild it?" Actually of New Orleans is at or above sea level according to Tulane and Xavier Universities. As for the U.S., 55% of us in America live in counties that are protected by levees, many of which are more vulnerable to flooding than New Orleans. As for the value of New Orleans, the Port of New Orleans is the largest in the U.S. and the fourth largest in the world. It is estimated that 62% of consumers in our country receive products through this Port. Many consumer goods such as gasoline, seafood, coffee imports, sugar, and cotton rely heavily upon the New Orleans area for cheap distribution throughout the U.S. Historically, the City was founded in 1718, making it 292 years old and it has survived far longer than almost all towns and cities in the U.S. It is the birthplace of jazz, and home to incredible culinary creations, architecture, arts, and musicians.

"Hurricane Katrina was a Category 5 natural disaster that destroyed New Orleans, leaving death and destruction." The fact is that Katrina, a Category 3 storm, arrived on 8/29 and moved on that day. The levees in New Orleans failed on 8/30. Independent engineering studies and a Federal judge have all ruled that this was a civil engineering disaster; almost entirely man-made. Dr. Ray Seed of UC Berkeley went so far as to say that this was the worst engineering disaster in the world since Chernobyl.

"No one could have foreseen the severity of Katrina or the breach of the levees." A video and transcripts were uncovered six months after Katrina that clearly showed President Bush being forewarned by Gov. Blanco, by the Head of the Hurricane Center, and even by FEMA Head Michael Brown -- all saying that the levees might be breached and that the storm was very likely to be devastating. Bush seemed indifferent; said things were taken care of and, days after Katrina, he stated, "No one could have foreseen the breach of the levees." Regardless of your views of his response, the video and transcripts caught him in a lie. He was fully warned.

These lies and misinformation cannot just be swept under the rug. Nor can we just move on. When a democracy fails to hold those accountable for their mistakes and when society keeps perpetuating misinformation, we do not take steps to improve our infrastructure and planning. How many other Army Corps of Engineers levees must fail for us to reconsider our priorities in society? How long can we allow certain bloggers or journalists to increase anger towards poor and minority people based on false information?

I have many conservative friends who have since confessed to me that they would have shown much more compassion and understanding towards NOLA residents if they had not heard of all the exaggerations in the media about what went on after Katrina. Ironically, as evidenced by a large number of New Orleans Police Officers under investigation for killing innocent unarmed citizens, it seems that local residents may have had far more to fear from their own police than from their neighbors.

I urge all Americans to take some time this week to really educate themselves on what took place, what still needs to be changed, and how they and their families can better prepare for such incidents. Furthermore, it's up to us to hold our media and our elected officials accountable for their actions or inactions and decide if we want to continue to spend billions of our tax dollars on a Gulf area thousands of miles from our own borders at the expense of our own U.S. Gulf.

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Author of "Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina" a memoir of being a tourist trapped in the Superdome during Katrina and the levee failures, Harris, a native of Sacramento, California was a rabid conservative always (more...)
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