After Katrina, crimes of the imagination

NY Times
Oct. 02, 2005

NEW ORLEANS After the storm came the siege.

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, terror from crimes seen and unseen, real and rumored, gripped New Orleans. The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit and grounded helicopters.

Edwin Compass 3rd, the police superintendent, said that tourists, the core of the city's economy, were being robbed and raped on streets that had slid into anarchy.

The mass misery in the city's two unlighted and uncooled primary shelters, the convention center and the Superdome, was compounded, officials said, by gangs that were raping women and children.

But a review of the available evidence shows that some, but not all, of the most alarming stories were figments of frightened imaginations, the product of no reliable communications, and perhaps the residue of the raw relations between some police officers and members of the public.

Beyond doubt, the sense of menace had been ignited by genuine disorder and violence. Looting varied from basic thievery to foraging for the necessities of life. Police officers said that at least one person fired for nights on end at a police station on the edge of the French Quarter. The manager of a hotel on Bourbon Street said he saw people running through the streets with guns.

At least one person was killed by a gunshot at the convention center, and a second at the Superdome. A police officer was shot in the Algiers neighborhood, across the river from downtown, during a confrontation with a looter.

It is impossible to say if the city experienced a wave of murder, because autopsies have been performed on slightly more than 10 percent of the 885 dead.

On Wednesday, Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state's medical incident commander for Katrina victims, said that only six or seven people appeared to have been the victims of homicides. He also said that people returning to homes in the damaged region have begun finding the bodies of relatives.

Compass, the superintendent, resigned Tuesday for reasons that remain unclear. His resignation came just as he was coming under criticism from The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which had questioned many of his public accounts of extreme violence.

In an interview last week with The New York Times, Compass said that some of his most shocking statements have turned out to be untrue. Asked about reports of rapes and murders, he said, "We have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault."

On Sept. 4, however, he was quoted in The Times about conditions at the convention center, saying, "The tourists are walking around there and as soon as these individuals see them, they're being preyed upon. They are beating, they are raping them in the streets."

Those comments, Compass now says, were based on secondhand reports. The tourists "were walking with their suitcases, and they would have their clothes and things taken," he said last week. "No rapes that we can quantify."

A full chronicle of crimes may never be possible, because many basic functions of government ceased during the start of the crisis. The 911 emergency telephone operators left their telephones when water began to rise around their building.

To assemble a picture of crime - real and perceived - The New York Times interviewed dozens of evacuees in four cities, police officers, medical workers and city officials. What became clear is that the rumor of crime often played a powerful role in the emergency response.

Paramedics were barred from entering Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, for nearly 10 hours based on a state trooper's report that a mob of armed people had commandeered boats. It turned out to be two men escaping from their flooded streets, said Farol Champlin, a paramedic.


National Guard troops were sent to rescue a St. Bernard's Parish deputy sheriff who radioed for help, saying he was pinned down by a sniper. The troops surrounded the area. The shots turned out to be the relief valve on a gas tank that popped open every few minutes, according to Lieutenant General Ron Mason of the Kansas National Guard.

"It's part of human nature," Mason said. "When you get one or two reports, it echoes around the community."

During six days when the Superdome was used as a shelter, the chief of the New Orleans Police Department's sex crime unit, Lieutenant David Benelli, said he and his officers lived inside the dome and investigated every rumor of rape or atrocity. In the end, they made two arrests for attempted sexual assault, and concluded that the other attacks had not happened.

"I think it was urban myth," Benelli said.

The serious crime began, in the recollection of many, before the catastrophic failure of the levees flooded the city, and most of it consisted of crimes of opportunity, rather than assault. In the half-hour or so that the eye of Hurricane Katrina fell on the city, when the weather calmed down, the looters struck, said Captain Anthony Canatella, the police commander in the Sixth District of New Orleans.

Using a chain hitched to a car, they tore open the steel doors at the back of a pawn shop called Cash America on Claiborne Avenue.

"There was nothing in there you could sustain your life with," Canatella said.

"There's nothing in there but guns and power tools."

The Sixth District is a mixture of wealth and poverty. It was the scene of heavy looting, with much of the stealing confined to the lower-income neighborhoods. A particular target was a Wal-Mart store on Tchoupitoulas Street, bordering on the elegant Garden District and built on the site of the only housing project in the city to be torn down.

The looters told a reporter from The New York Times that they followed police officers into the store after they broke it open, and police commanders said that their officers had been given permission to take what they needed from the store to survive. A reporter from The Times-Picayune said that he saw police officers grabbing DVDs.

A frenzy of stealing began, and the fruits of it could be seen last week in three containers parked outside the Sixth District police station. Inside were goods recovered from stashes that looters made in homes throughout the neighborhood, Canatella said.

"Not one piece of educational material was taken. The best-selling books are all sitting right where they were left," Canatella said. "But every $9 watch in the store is gone."


NEW ORLEANS After the storm came the siege.

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, terror from crimes seen and unseen, real and rumored, gripped New Orleans. The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit and grounded helicopters.

Edwin Compass 3rd, the police superintendent, said that tourists, the core of the city's economy, were being robbed and raped on streets that had slid into anarchy.

The mass misery in the city's two unlighted and uncooled primary shelters, the convention center and the Superdome, was compounded, officials said, by gangs that were raping women and children.

But a review of the available evidence shows that some, but not all, of the most alarming stories were figments of frightened imaginations, the product of no reliable communications, and perhaps the residue of the raw relations between some police officers and members of the public.

Beyond doubt, the sense of menace had been ignited by genuine disorder and violence. Looting varied from basic thievery to foraging for the necessities of life. Police officers said that at least one person fired for nights on end at a police station on the edge of the French Quarter. The manager of a hotel on Bourbon Street said he saw people running through the streets with guns.

At least one person was killed by a gunshot at the convention center, and a second at the Superdome. A police officer was shot in the Algiers neighborhood, across the river from downtown, during a confrontation with a looter.

It is impossible to say if the city experienced a wave of murder, because autopsies have been performed on slightly more than 10 percent of the 885 dead.

On Wednesday, Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state's medical incident commander for Katrina victims, said that only six or seven people appeared to have been the victims of homicides. He also said that people returning to homes in the damaged region have begun finding the bodies of relatives.

Compass, the superintendent, resigned Tuesday for reasons that remain unclear. His resignation came just as he was coming under criticism from The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which had questioned many of his public accounts of extreme violence.

In an interview last week with The New York Times, Compass said that some of his most shocking statements have turned out to be untrue. Asked about reports of rapes and murders, he said, "We have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault."

On Sept. 4, however, he was quoted in The Times about conditions at the convention center, saying, "The tourists are walking around there and as soon as these individuals see them, they're being preyed upon. They are beating, they are raping them in the streets."

Those comments, Compass now says, were based on secondhand reports. The tourists "were walking with their suitcases, and they would have their clothes and things taken," he said last week. "No rapes that we can quantify."

A full chronicle of crimes may never be possible, because many basic functions of government ceased during the start of the crisis. The 911 emergency telephone operators left their telephones when water began to rise around their building.

To assemble a picture of crime - real and perceived - The New York Times interviewed dozens of evacuees in four cities, police officers, medical workers and city officials. What became clear is that the rumor of crime often played a powerful role in the emergency response.

Paramedics were barred from entering Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, for nearly 10 hours based on a state trooper's report that a mob of armed people had commandeered boats. It turned out to be two men escaping from their flooded streets, said Farol Champlin, a paramedic.


National Guard troops were sent to rescue a St. Bernard's Parish deputy sheriff who radioed for help, saying he was pinned down by a sniper. The troops surrounded the area. The shots turned out to be the relief valve on a gas tank that popped open every few minutes, according to Lieutenant General Ron Mason of the Kansas National Guard.

"It's part of human nature," Mason said. "When you get one or two reports, it echoes around the community."

During six days when the Superdome was used as a shelter, the chief of the New Orleans Police Department's sex crime unit, Lieutenant David Benelli, said he and his officers lived inside the dome and investigated every rumor of rape or atrocity. In the end, they made two arrests for attempted sexual assault, and concluded that the other attacks had not happened.

"I think it was urban myth," Benelli said.

The serious crime began, in the recollection of many, before the catastrophic failure of the levees flooded the city, and most of it consisted of crimes of opportunity, rather than assault. In the half-hour or so that the eye of Hurricane Katrina fell on the city, when the weather calmed down, the looters struck, said Captain Anthony Canatella, the police commander in the Sixth District of New Orleans.

Using a chain hitched to a car, they tore open the steel doors at the back of a pawn shop called Cash America on Claiborne Avenue.

"There was nothing in there you could sustain your life with," Canatella said.

"There's nothing in there but guns and power tools."

The Sixth District is a mixture of wealth and poverty. It was the scene of heavy looting, with much of the stealing confined to the lower-income neighborhoods. A particular target was a Wal-Mart store on Tchoupitoulas Street, bordering on the elegant Garden District and built on the site of the only housing project in the city to be torn down.

The looters told a reporter from The New York Times that they followed police officers into the store after they broke it open, and police commanders said that their officers had been given permission to take what they needed from the store to survive. A reporter from The Times-Picayune said that he saw police officers grabbing DVDs.

A frenzy of stealing began, and the fruits of it could be seen last week in three containers parked outside the Sixth District police station. Inside were goods recovered from stashes that looters made in homes throughout the neighborhood, Canatella said.

"Not one piece of educational material was taken. The best-selling books are all sitting right where they were left," Canatella said. "But every $9 watch in the store is gone."


NEW ORLEANS After the storm came the siege.

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, terror from crimes seen and unseen, real and rumored, gripped New Orleans. The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit and grounded helicopters.

Edwin Compass 3rd, the police superintendent, said that tourists, the core of the city's economy, were being robbed and raped on streets that had slid into anarchy.

The mass misery in the city's two unlighted and uncooled primary shelters, the convention center and the Superdome, was compounded, officials said, by gangs that were raping women and children.

But a review of the available evidence shows that some, but not all, of the most alarming stories were figments of frightened imaginations, the product of no reliable communications, and perhaps the residue of the raw relations between some police officers and members of the public.

Beyond doubt, the sense of menace had been ignited by genuine disorder and violence. Looting varied from basic thievery to foraging for the necessities of life. Police officers said that at least one person fired for nights on end at a police station on the edge of the French Quarter. The manager of a hotel on Bourbon Street said he saw people running through the streets with guns.

At least one person was killed by a gunshot at the convention center, and a second at the Superdome. A police officer was shot in the Algiers neighborhood, across the river from downtown, during a confrontation with a looter.

It is impossible to say if the city experienced a wave of murder, because autopsies have been performed on slightly more than 10 percent of the 885 dead.

On Wednesday, Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state's medical incident commander for Katrina victims, said that only six or seven people appeared to have been the victims of homicides. He also said that people returning to homes in the damaged region have begun finding the bodies of relatives.

Compass, the superintendent, resigned Tuesday for reasons that remain unclear. His resignation came just as he was coming under criticism from The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which had questioned many of his public accounts of extreme violence.

In an interview last week with The New York Times, Compass said that some of his most shocking statements have turned out to be untrue. Asked about reports of rapes and murders, he said, "We have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault."

On Sept. 4, however, he was quoted in The Times about conditions at the convention center, saying, "The tourists are walking around there and as soon as these individuals see them, they're being preyed upon. They are beating, they are raping them in the streets."

Those comments, Compass now says, were based on secondhand reports. The tourists "were walking with their suitcases, and they would have their clothes and things taken," he said last week. "No rapes that we can quantify."

A full chronicle of crimes may never be possible, because many basic functions of government ceased during the start of the crisis. The 911 emergency telephone operators left their telephones when water began to rise around their building.

To assemble a picture of crime - real and perceived - The New York Times interviewed dozens of evacuees in four cities, police officers, medical workers and city officials. What became clear is that the rumor of crime often played a powerful role in the emergency response.

Paramedics were barred from entering Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, for nearly 10 hours based on a state trooper's report that a mob of armed people had commandeered boats. It turned out to be two men escaping from their flooded streets, said Farol Champlin, a paramedic.


National Guard troops were sent to rescue a St. Bernard's Parish deputy sheriff who radioed for help, saying he was pinned down by a sniper. The troops surrounded the area. The shots turned out to be the relief valve on a gas tank that popped open every few minutes, according to Lieutenant General Ron Mason of the Kansas National Guard.

"It's part of human nature," Mason said. "When you get one or two reports, it echoes around the community."

During six days when the Superdome was used as a shelter, the chief of the New Orleans Police Department's sex crime unit, Lieutenant David Benelli, said he and his officers lived inside the dome and investigated every rumor of rape or atrocity. In the end, they made two arrests for attempted sexual assault, and concluded that the other attacks had not happened.

"I think it was urban myth," Benelli said.

The serious crime began, in the recollection of many, before the catastrophic failure of the levees flooded the city, and most of it consisted of crimes of opportunity, rather than assault. In the half-hour or so that the eye of Hurricane Katrina fell on the city, when the weather calmed down, the looters struck, said Captain Anthony Canatella, the police commander in the Sixth District of New Orleans.

Using a chain hitched to a car, they tore open the steel doors at the back of a pawn shop called Cash America on Claiborne Avenue.

"There was nothing in there you could sustain your life with," Canatella said.

"There's nothing in there but guns and power tools."

The Sixth District is a mixture of wealth and poverty. It was the scene of heavy looting, with much of the stealing confined to the lower-income neighborhoods. A particular target was a Wal-Mart store on Tchoupitoulas Street, bordering on the elegant Garden District and built on the site of the only housing project in the city to be torn down.

The looters told a reporter from The New York Times that they followed police officers into the store after they broke it open, and police commanders said that their officers had been given permission to take what they needed from the store to survive. A reporter from The Times-Picayune said that he saw police officers grabbing DVDs.

A frenzy of stealing began, and the fruits of it could be seen last week in three containers parked outside the Sixth District police station. Inside were goods recovered from stashes that looters made in homes throughout the neighborhood, Canatella said.

"Not one piece of educational material was taken. The best-selling books are all sitting right where they were left," Canatella said. "But every $9 watch in the store is gone."


NEW ORLEANS After the storm came the siege.

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, terror from crimes seen and unseen, real and rumored, gripped New Orleans. The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit and grounded helicopters.

Edwin Compass 3rd, the police superintendent, said that tourists, the core of the city's economy, were being robbed and raped on streets that had slid into anarchy.

The mass misery in the city's two unlighted and uncooled primary shelters, the convention center and the Superdome, was compounded, officials said, by gangs that were raping women and children.

But a review of the available evidence shows that some, but not all, of the most alarming stories were figments of frightened imaginations, the product of no reliable communications, and perhaps the residue of the raw relations between some police officers and members of the public.

Beyond doubt, the sense of menace had been ignited by genuine disorder and violence. Looting varied from basic thievery to foraging for the necessities of life. Police officers said that at least one person fired for nights on end at a police station on the edge of the French Quarter. The manager of a hotel on Bourbon Street said he saw people running through the streets with guns.

At least one person was killed by a gunshot at the convention center, and a second at the Superdome. A police officer was shot in the Algiers neighborhood, across the river from downtown, during a confrontation with a looter.

It is impossible to say if the city experienced a wave of murder, because autopsies have been performed on slightly more than 10 percent of the 885 dead.

On Wednesday, Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state's medical incident commander for Katrina victims, said that only six or seven people appeared to have been the victims of homicides. He also said that people returning to homes in the damaged region have begun finding the bodies of relatives.

Compass, the superintendent, resigned Tuesday for reasons that remain unclear. His resignation came just as he was coming under criticism from The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which had questioned many of his public accounts of extreme violence.

In an interview last week with The New York Times, Compass said that some of his most shocking statements have turned out to be untrue. Asked about reports of rapes and murders, he said, "We have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault."

On Sept. 4, however, he was quoted in The Times about conditions at the convention center, saying, "The tourists are walking around there and as soon as these individuals see them, they're being preyed upon. They are beating, they are raping them in the streets."

Those comments, Compass now says, were based on secondhand reports. The tourists "were walking with their suitcases, and they would have their clothes and things taken," he said last week. "No rapes that we can quantify."

A full chronicle of crimes may never be possible, because many basic functions of government ceased during the start of the crisis. The 911 emergency telephone operators left their telephones when water began to rise around their building.

To assemble a picture of crime - real and perceived - The New York Times interviewed dozens of evacuees in four cities, police officers, medical workers and city officials. What became clear is that the rumor of crime often played a powerful role in the emergency response.

Paramedics were barred from entering Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, for nearly 10 hours based on a state trooper's report that a mob of armed people had commandeered boats. It turned out to be two men escaping from their flooded streets, said Farol Champlin, a paramedic.


National Guard troops were sent to rescue a St. Bernard's Parish deputy sheriff who radioed for help, saying he was pinned down by a sniper. The troops surrounded the area. The shots turned out to be the relief valve on a gas tank that popped open every few minutes, according to Lieutenant General Ron Mason of the Kansas National Guard.

"It's part of human nature," Mason said. "When you get one or two reports, it echoes around the community."

During six days when the Superdome was used as a shelter, the chief of the New Orleans Police Department's sex crime unit, Lieutenant David Benelli, said he and his officers lived inside the dome and investigated every rumor of rape or atrocity. In the end, they made two arrests for attempted sexual assault, and concluded that the other attacks had not happened.

"I think it was urban myth," Benelli said.

The serious crime began, in the recollection of many, before the catastrophic failure of the levees flooded the city, and most of it consisted of crimes of opportunity, rather than assault. In the half-hour or so that the eye of Hurricane Katrina fell on the city, when the weather calmed down, the looters struck, said Captain Anthony Canatella, the police commander in the Sixth District of New Orleans.

Using a chain hitched to a car, they tore open the steel doors at the back of a pawn shop called Cash America on Claiborne Avenue.

"There was nothing in there you could sustain your life with," Canatella said.

"There's nothing in there but guns and power tools."













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