Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
I'm Shereen Marisol Merici, Gene Demby, and this is Code Switch from NPR. For the past week, Hurricane ISIS has been tearing up the East Coast.
People have lost power, homes have been destroyed. And as of when we're recording this episode, it's just the beginning of hurricane season.
But we're nowhere near the kind of damage and destruction that happened 15 years ago this month. Jeanne, you know what I'm talking about? Mm hmm.
Hurricane Katrina, as many of our listeners will remember, that storm absolutely devastated New Orleans when the levees broke. Entire neighborhoods were flooded. People were left without electricity for months. More than eighteen hundred people died.
Thousands of New Orleans were refugees in their own city and many wound up leaving New Orleans permanently for Houston, Arkansas and other places.
And the neighborhoods hit hardest. As many people listening to this already know were poor black neighborhoods.
And those neighborhoods, many of them have still not recovered 15 years later.
Over the years, especially during these anniversaries, many people have criticized the government's response to the crisis. But this week on the show, we're bringing you an episode of the new Flood Lines podcast from The Atlantic.
And this episode gets into the many ways the media failed in the aftermath of that storm and how coverage of Katrina exacerbated the already severe racial inequities in New Orleans.
So here's episode three of flood lines with host van, our new The Second. It begins in the days after the storm first hit.
Most of the Lower Ninth Ward was already underwater. Lots of people were missing, lots of people were gone. Alice Craft Kerney was trapped there in her brother's three story house in the high ground. After Katrina, it was basically an island in the darkness at night, it was pitch black, except for the fires that had erupted because of gas, you could see that lighting up the sky. More than 30 people were stuffed into the house. Family, friends, neighbors had saved.
But the eeriest thing was to hear voices of people at night cry, help, help. And you heard them, but you couldn't help. Alice and her family were relatively lucky. There was no running water, but they had food and a generator. They just waited. We heard the helicopters passing all the time, but they never stopped for us. Coast Guard and National Guard helicopters were flying low searching for survivors. But since they were in a decent shelter already, Alice is family and friends, figured they weren't a priority yet.
I understood it. My brothers and my brother was military, so he understood.
You have your mission.
You have to go where they send you. But we the question was, when are we going to get rescued?
There was no way to know. Most cell towers were down in the city at this point. New Orleans was almost a dead zone.
I had to go all the way up to the roof to get that signal. I had a Verizon at that time.
Can you hear me out of the room? I've got to give them that shout out.
Verizon was Alice and her family had one other line to the outside, a working TV.
Most of New Orleans is underwater tonight as they would get together and watch one channel told Channel four. Good evening. I'm Bob Schieffer for the people along the Gulf Coast. It is a catastrophe.
They tune in and watch the catastrophe unfold on TV.
After the catastrophe, they were experiencing billions in damage and a death toll that cannot yet be calculated.
They would see reports about all the people who hadn't been saved yet while they were waiting to be saved have been touring the flooded streets of New Orleans today.
We'll have full coverage throughout the hurricane zone tonight, what FEMA now calls the most significant natural disaster to ever hit the United States. It was surreal. This is, strictly speaking, some of it wasn't real at all. Misinformation is common after any disaster. In fact, it's so common it has a name disaster myth. But the mythmaking after Katrina was extreme, so extreme that in the days after the storm, it was like New Orleans existed in two parallel universes.
One was a universe that Alice lived. It stuck in that house in the Lower Ninth Ward. The other was one she was watching on TV. In the real universe, people like Alice were doing their best to keep each other alive with no help from the outside.
Katrina, now a mere tropical depression over the state of Tennessee.
In the media universe, everything was distorted, but the disaster it left behind grows by the hour. And it is not simply a natural disaster tonight. It is becoming the sort of disaster humans cause. There is looting and lawlessness overwhelming in the eyes of the media.
It was often the victims themselves who were to blame. And you mentioned the danger from Mother Nature, from the flooding like that. There's another danger here in New Orleans tonight, and it's from some of the people who are still here. The worst of Mother Nature may have passed. The worst in men is still a problem. Part three through the looking glass. Katrina happened during a weird technological moment. It was the era of the 24 hour cable news broadcast, but before everybody had smartphones and social media, national audiences expected around the clock coverage about the disaster.
But the national media didn't have around the clock information.
A major breach in a levee overnight sent more water pouring into an already flooded city. Efforts to fix it have failed, and the water is expected to begin rising rapidly yet again residents.
The city was mostly blacked out by the storm and the media relied on partial and often second hand reports and they were behind. On Tuesday, the nightly national news broadcast finally caught up to local reporting about the levee breaches, and a particular narrative began to emerge. Chaos, gangs of thieves who armed themselves from local stores now roam the streets, looting even the hospitals, it's forced state officials to divert scarce resources to neighborhood patrols, hoping that a show of force will keep the looting in check.
Looting became a fixation. Sometimes reporters have make attempts at empathy.
Looting continues throughout the downtown area today. It isn't a game for many of these people. It's a matter of survival. Lots of other times they would just snitch.
You think it's OK to take that? Stole it. I mean, I knew that. I know we don't, but if we were walking into one of our faces, looting is widespread. Police stopped them when they can, but most of it is going unreturned in broad daylight.
Our reporters seemed especially interested in images of people taking TVs or Jordans. You would see the same reels of the same black people going into the same stores over and over.
I mean, first of all, is there anything left to loot and are people still looting? And is there nothing that can be done about it?
The things that I witnessed today that I will never forget. Looting on a scale that was just so staggering, so overwhelming. It was it was open season. The city has been ravaged by the hurricane and now it's being ravaged by some of its citizens.
But do you have any sense of people who are breaking into stores because they have no food, they have no water, and they need both? And how many people are stealing guns and beer and sneakers and what have you?
I think you have more of that going on and people looking for food. We are.
There were a lot of reporters trying to make a distinction between good looters and bad looters, but the fixation on looting in the first place was a distraction.
This is the center of one of the great cities of America, New Orleans. Here we have a virtual refugee camp with thousands of people waiting for some sort of help, medical, food, water, you name it. And then over there, the police, scores of police officers all concerned about one looter who's in that supermarket.
It was like all the suffering was invisible to some people. All they could see was crime, the looting, looters, including looting and looting.
Is it a fight for survival? One source inside the city who snapped pictures of looting in the French Quarter called the scene insane, that tourists likened it to downtown Baghdad.
I mean, Baghdad, really, a lot of the reporting was like this, dramatic to the point of absurdity. They pick up on a scary sounding detail.
We've just gotten a very disturbing report from inside the city of New Orleans from our own correspondent in there, Jeff Goldblatt, who says he's just witnessed citizens of New Orleans walking around with AK 47 on the streets that was hit.
And then that detail will get warped and sensationalized to guys. He told me that AK 47 is just shooting at police officers. No one was hurt. The guys fled into the French Quarter. They got away.
We do know that some folks did carry assault rifles. Lots of them were themselves police officers, a security. But these reports made it seem like the city was being taken over by murderers. There was a rumor that the Superdome was a hotspot for killings, that a National Guardsman had found dozens of dead bodies in a freezer, including a seven year old with her throat cut. It wasn't true. Reporting like this had real life consequences if you think you're in a war zone, then every person looks like a combatant.
We're told someone opened fire on a military chopper here to help out with rescue efforts. Ambulances halted their evacuation of people from the Superdome this morning when gunshots were fired.
Rescue helicopters have come under fire to the largest ambulance service says it will have to severely cut back its rescue efforts if security doesn't improve.
And the final telling, there were no helicopters with bullet holes, no ambulances either. But that didn't matter. The rumors slowed down the response anyway.
Police in the city of New Orleans. Fifteen hundred of them have now been called off their search and rescue work to simply deal with the lawlessness in the city. One state senator summed up the danger. You can't rescue people when you're being shot at. Right now, the plan is to restore order because you can't even get the emergency response personnel into the city. The Pentagon was considering an armed military response. A FEMA official said that some doctors were required to get armed escorts just to walk across the street.
The hysteria got so bad that the southeastern Louisiana chapter of the Red Cross waited a month to get to New Orleans.
The CEO said they had to wait until the city was safe, the criminal element, and taken advantage of the opportunity. When there's no light, no electricity and no one around to burglarize and loot.
It is a war zone, an absolute war zone. People are getting killed and great women left alone and looters left to roam free.
There were lots of reports to aid workers about sexual assaults in shelters, especially after evacuation. But many of the most sensational stories that circulated on TV that week were never substantiated. Stories of rapes of children and murders of rape victims. The police chief even repeated a lot of them. Groups of young men have been working in the city, shooting at people attempting to rape young women, sniper or snipers, reportedly picking off people as they try to leave.
The men who are left on the street with these guns are the hardest of the hard sergeant.
When you hear them, you're hearing the same stuff we're hearing coming out of New Orleans and you hear about the state of anarchy. You hear about people getting killed, people getting shot at, helicopters getting shot at.
What do you make of all this? We actually know what people made of all this in a Gallup poll released weeks after Katrina, most Americans said they thought the residents of New Orleans handled things poorly right after the storm. A quarter of all Americans blame the residents themselves for the disaster. Almost half said the looters they saw on TV were, quote unquote, criminals. The vast majority of people in the poll thought the media was pretty much on the level that they acted responsibly.
Nothing to see here. But people who are actually there, better yet, the people like Alice who are actually there and we're watching the whole mess on TV, they saw things differently. It was it was the way.
Everything was framed. It was like, if it's a certain group of people they're commandeering wherever it's another group of people, they're looting. We are we're trying to survive, we're trying to do the very same thing in a bad situation, but it was the way that everything was framed with us.
It's painful to think about the House and Holy Cross was hot, there was no running water. Alice was both bored and afraid.
She saw her own people become targets and she was furious. But she would be the first to tell you she was lucky in all this.
She watched the worst of it from afar, up close for the people in the crosshairs. It wasn't just infuriating. It was dangerous. The Ernest Morial Convention Center is a landmark. It's absolutely huge, takes up about 10 city blocks in downtown New Orleans. If you're driving towards the river, you can see it on the horizon like a stadium or an airport, it's one of those places that you think is going to be around forever. That's why even though it was never an official shelter during Katrina, you can understand why people decided to go there.
Lee-Ann Williams and her family had heard horror stories about the violence and conditions in the Superdome. The rumors got to them to. So they decided to head for the convention center. Instead, we got off on a Tapachula exit and we were sitting under a bridge. And me and my cousins every year or should we go, Jesse and Jessica, we were playing predebate and of course I was worn down because they paint the water and everything in my backpack.
The kids entertain themselves playing cards. They'd had a rough couple of days. If they were looking for some relief as they entered the convention center, they didn't find it.
I just remember being hot, smelly, just the smell like people and take a bath in days and people crammed up in the heat.
It was time and then the bathrooms were overflow.
Or my brother tried to use the bathroom and we went in there with my mom. The toilet was filled with urine and poo. It was all in a sink and on. We just had to use the bathroom on the floor because he couldn't go into the bathroom stall.
They had it everywhere.
Mayor Nagin had made the Superdome the official refuge of last resort. The government had brought troops, medicine, food and water there. But none of that stuff was at the convention center when we made it. My stepdad and Jumpin Jack left to go find food, and I remember them coming back on cans and like three cans of beans. So we just were sitting there, just sitting there, said, now, nighttime, come here.
I remember we went to sleep, we went to sleep on the floor, all us there wasn't much reporting about what was going on at the convention center, at least not at that point.
But what did come out describe the place as a war zone. They were told to come here.
Local authorities said it would be a safe place, but there's no electricity, no food, no water.
Police say there and we saw dead bodies. People are dying there at the convention center with a dangerous cocktail of anger, fear and desperation brewing, 88 police officers were sent to deal with matters there. A mob beat them back, according to the chief of police.
Fifteen thousand people in the city's convention center alone. And we should warn you already some of the scenes we saw there are some of the most gruesome pictures so far in this crisis. There is looting, there is shooting.
And of, Chris, a report that there are something like 100 armed men inside the convention center sort of holding the center, if you will, away from police. Do you know anything about that? If police told you anything about that?
Why can't the police go in there and take this wasn't true. The fact that so many people were willing to take these stories at face value is evidence of how intense the paranoia was. In the end, it turned out that one person total was shot in the convention center later, authorities would search all 19000 people there. They found 13 weapons. But the picture from the mayor and the police chief was of a place that was too dangerous to save. The only authorities that Liane encountered were a small detachment of National Guardsmen who were holed up there before the storm.
They were there to fix levee breaches. LeAnn could see them huddled together when she looked up at the floors above her and it just sitting up there, like with the rifles on them.
And they're not telling us nothing and they just watching us.
The National Guardsmen set up their staging ground in an exhibit hall. But they weren't actually equipped to help the people around them. They were stranded to. Leadership told those guardsmen not to enter the crowd because it might get out of control. But LeAnn didn't know all that. All she saw was military personnel with their guns trained on her, like not in Iraq and what I was telling us was going on just sitting in a cell with rifles on.
Like in opposition, ready to shoot. So I don't understand what he was doing instead of me down here helping us, bringing food and water. Like, why are we being treated like dogs? The way I felt I was like they they left us there to die, like they really don't care who cares about a poor black 40 year old girl? Or about me, who wants to come save us? They Sean has not nobody. Leeann's aunt heard that somebody was going to send buses to come pick everyone up.
But at this point, the hadn't seen any authorities willing to help. She'd had to find her own food. Her family had to walk to the convention center on their own when they got there, the only soldiers they could find pointed their guns at them. If she had any hope that somebody might view her as worthy of rescue, that hope is long gone.
Now, I'm like the line we still here are being only. So now I'm starting to see that if nobody's coming for us. So I told my mom, I say I just yanked on my mom. I remember she turned to me and I just cry. I say, man, just tell me the truth. We're going to die. Issues like what I say, nobody is not coming to save us, I say they don't care about us. I say the president, nobody is coming as they we still here.
No food, no water. I said I'm not my brother, my sister. I'm older on this day. I say, just tell me the truth. Let me ask you about images that many Americans are seeing today and hearing about there from the convention center in New Orleans, CNN.
There were moments when journalists got things right, when they pushed against government officials and cut through all the bullshit. On Thursday afternoon, NPR's Robert Siegel interviewed Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA. In its coverage, NPR will focus on a lot of stuff like the Superdome and looting, which was standard reporting at that point. But then Siegel started asking about the convention center. How many days before your operation finds these people, brings them at least food, water, medical supplies, if not gets them out of there?
Well, first, let me tell you, there have been deliveries of food, water and medical supplies to the Superdome. And that's happened almost from the very beginning.
But this is the convention said these are people who are not allowed inside the Superdome.
Well, the people, you know, there have we have brought this to the Chertoff just ignores the question station. Siegel tries again.
We're here. We are hearing from from our reporter. He's on another line now, thousands of people at the convention center in New Orleans with no food zero.
As I say, I'm telling you that we are getting food and water to areas where people are staging. And, you know, the one thing about an episode like this is if you talk to someone and you get a rumor or you get someone's anecdotal version of something, I think it's dangerous to extrapolate it are all over the place.
This is a week where stories about all kinds of violence were taken seriously. A week where snipers were believed to be shooting helicopters. But somehow the eminently verifiable fact of thousands of people sitting in a giant building in the middle of town was too much rumor for FEMA.
So but but I mean, when you say that we don't we shouldn't listen to rumors. These are things coming from reporters who have not only covered many, many other hurricanes, they've covered wars and refugee camps. Well, these aren't rumors. They're seeing thousands of people.
But well, I would be, as I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don't have food and water.
I can tell you the director of FEMA, Michael Brown, also said in multiple interviews that he just found out about the situation at the convention center that day. And the next segment, NPR interview reporter John Burnett, who was at the convention center and saw everything.
Let me clarify for the secretary and for everyone else what myself and during on Hawk just drove away from three blocks from here in the Ernest Morial Convention Center. There are, I estimate, 2000 people living like animals inside the city convention center and around it. They've been there since the hurricane. There's no food. There's absolutely no water. There's no medical treatment. There's no police and no security. And there are two.
Just after that, Chertoff folks called back.
Secretary Chertoff spokeswoman called to say that after our interview with the secretary of Homeland Security, he received a report confirming the situation at the convention center. And he says the department is working tirelessly to get food and supplies to those in need and also to save lives.
For his part, the president still hadn't been to New Orleans. But he came close, people still in New Orleans, if they look to the skies this morning, saw Air Force One, the president flying over for a personal look at the devastation, his plane.
You know, it's kind of an absurd moment when you think about it. The president had cut his vacation in Texas short to respond. He had to do something. And the White House set it on flying Air Force One really low over the Gulf Coast, taking a couple of photos of him looking pensive out the window and then putting on a press conference back in D.C. as we flew here today.
I also asked the pilot to fly over the Gulf Coast region so I could see firsthand the scope and magnitude of the devastation.
Bush's flyover wasn't exactly good PR. And then it got worse. On Friday, Bush flew to Mobile, Alabama, and this time he got out of the plane, he held a press conference on the side of a response and he turned to the guy standing next to him, FEMA Chief Michael Brown.
Again, I want to thank you all for and Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job, FEMA director, that was bad.
And all this together, the slow government response, the media coverage, Bush's seeming indifference, it all added up. Alice Craft, Kearney, we'll put it like this, I'll put it like this as a person of color, you always have it in the back of your mind that the government really doesn't care about you.
Katrina validated that. It cemented it for me. I felt like, you know, you talk a good game about, oh, we love our people, you we don't treat you any different, but I don't think that anybody would have wanted to trade places with me that day to say, oh, we don't treat anybody any different.
Yes, you do. And we saw it loud and clear, it was played out that day. It's some days I don't like to think about it because I just get choked up. The flyover, the rumors, the stereotypes about black folks, for people who knew the history of being treated like second class citizens, it was easy to find patterns. I hate the way they Petraeus and the media, if you see a black family, it says they're looting.
See a white family. It says they're looking for food. And, you know, it's been five days because most of the people are black and even for me. Yeah. Kanye West, the old Kanye, an NBC benefit telethon for Katrina held on Friday night. A frightened looking Mike Myers is standing next to him as Kanye is clearly going off script. The end of this quote is a meme now. But really, if you listen to how he's describing what he's seen, it's chilling with the setup, the way America is set up to help the the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible.
I mean, this is Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of the people that could help are at war right now fighting another way, and they've given them permission to go down and shoot us.
And subtle, but in even many ways, it all might sound conspiratorial. The lasting damage, but it was logical for lots of New Orleans like Alice, lots of black Americans, folks who had seen Jim Crow or heard the stories, Tuskegee, Tulsa, Wilmington, if you know all that, if you've seen all that, maybe a conspiracy is the most logical conclusion.
The destruction of the spirit of the people of southern Louisiana and Mississippi may end up being the most tragic loss of all. George Bush doesn't care about black people. In the end, a lot of what they said will be vindicated. Even as he was speaking, all the rumor and fear started turning victims in a target, the parallel universe had become real. It would manifest in a series of violent tragedies and a race to bury them under the floodwaters. This episode was hosted by Van R.
Newkirk, the second it was produced by Katherine Welles, Alva Malath, Katie Rectal and Kevin Townsend music was by Kristin Scott Attuned Edgeware Mix, Sound Design and Additional Music by David Herman. The entire series and full credits can be found at the Atlantic dot com forward slash flood lines.