Flood myths
September 3, 2005 10:57 AM   Subscribe

From a New York journalist's description of the days after the flood:
I saw persons take watches from dead men's jackets and brutally tore finger-rings from the hands of women. The ruffians also climbed into the overturned houses and ransacked the rooms, taking whatever they thought valuable.
Sound familiar? This report about the Johnstown Flood was also filled with stories of "minority savegery", drunken Hungarians at the time that eventually turned out to be completely untrue or wildly exaggerated, such as the rescue helicoptor being shot at. also see previous mefi thread on LA looting here
posted by destro (36 comments total)
Was the rescue copter shooting definitively shown to be a rumor/lie? I'd love a link to anything about that. Great post.
posted by realcountrymusic at 11:07 AM on September 3, 2005

posted by realcountrymusic at 11:18 AM on September 3, 2005

Re wildly exaggerated, was the New York journalist's story inaccurate? Or are you presuming that it is inaccurate because you think these sorts of stories are susceptible to exaggeration?
posted by esquire at 11:35 AM on September 3, 2005

I don't know about the helicopter, but I heard from a distant relative yesterday who was a nurse in a hospital in New Orleans. She, and other medical personnel there, had to stop treating patients because people were shooting at the medical personnel. Patients were literally dying while the doctors and nurses took cover. Communication is still primarily through text messaging although the cell phones are becoming more reliable. Whether the particular helicopter incident is true or not, it was, and largely still is, a lawless environment filled with savage acts. It may be but a tiny percentage of people committing these acts but the effect upon everyone else is huge.
posted by caddis at 11:38 AM on September 3, 2005

Someone need to tell the Army conducting Combat Operations in New Orleans that nobody is shooting at them.

According to Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeremy Grishamn, a spokesman for the amphibious assault ship Bataan, the vessel kept its helicopters at sea Thursday night after several military helicopters reported being shot at from the ground.

Numerous soldiers also told Army Times that they have been shot at by armed civilians in New Orleans. Spokesmen for the Joint Task Force Headquarters at the Superdome were unaware of any servicemen being wounded in the streets, although one soldier is recovering from a gunshot wound sustained during a struggle with a civilian in the dome Wednesday night.

Do we really need the US Army, whose specialty is to kill people and break things, unleashed on US civilians with shoot to kill orders?
posted by Balisong at 11:51 AM on September 3, 2005

These things are not being exaggerated. It is a war zone. I have a group of friends who are holed up in a downtown hotel. They are under siege and have seen horrible things. If anything, the violence is worse than it has been depicted on the news. A reporter they ran into described NOLA as "Baghdad, but flooded."
posted by brundlefly at 11:53 AM on September 3, 2005

I'm hoping the stories about kids getting raped are exaggerations. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
posted by iamck at 12:07 PM on September 3, 2005

RE the johnstown flood myth: I 'm basing it around the Brooks article who is getting his info from David Mccolough's book. I don't have a specific disputation against the NY World journalist's statements, just that the general claims of savagery were found to be misleading.

As far as the stories about people shooting up hospitals or gun battles in the streets, it could be true. considering that the national guard was sent in to stop looters before providing food i can imagine it would escalate violence more. But i'd take some of these stories with a grain of salt given the history of the Johnstown Flood and the Galveston Hurricane.
posted by destro at 12:10 PM on September 3, 2005

Like I said before, just because the FAA doesn't know about gunfire doesn't mean gunfire didn't happen. You're surely doing a million things at once when you're flying a rescue helicopter even without getting shot at. One of the first things you learn about flying in complicated situations is that radio communication is usually the last priority.

"Fly the airplane!" the saying goes. Or helicopter. Get away from the hazard safely, then worry about phoning it in to the FAA (who are likely ill-equipped to handle the problem anyway). Or don't bother, since you're too busy.
posted by tss at 12:15 PM on September 3, 2005

If the implication here is some 'minority' group is more prone to savagery than average then one might have to agree if their minority status is defined by their mental condition, not skin color. In any community there are always going to be some with mental problems than need control through medication or in the last resort the threat of physical restraint by police. Absent standard medical care and police, any community will evidence a minority group capable of savagery. How many mentally unbalanced snipers would it take, maybe 1 or 2 to create this story and give it legs? That's a very small number considering the thousands there. I'm actually surprised there isn't more arson being commited at this point. It would only take a very few such people to create the impression the whole community has decided to burn the city down.
posted by scheptech at 12:16 PM on September 3, 2005

"considering that the national guard was sent in to stop looters before providing food"


That, compounded with the fact that many of the "looters" have no access to information of any kind, would lead many to believe that they could be without food, water or support for an indefinite amount of time.

Some kid with a rifle gets between me and my only option for saving my family? I'm probably going to encourage him to get out of my way.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:17 PM on September 3, 2005

If you are being shot at in a helicoptor, you may not be able to report while being shot at, but I'm sure you would warn others once you're in a safe position. Especially if they stop bringing supplies by helicoptor because of it.
posted by destro at 12:29 PM on September 3, 2005

implication is not that one group is more prone to savagery, but that there are false reports of savagery by minorities. Not that all of the reports are false, just that these situations can bring out a type of biased gossip that assumes the worst.
posted by destro at 1:02 PM on September 3, 2005

I'm sure you would warn others once you're in a safe position.

Quite possibly, but then again, possibly not. The question you have to ask is who needs to know.

Certainly the folks running the airborne rescue ops need to know, since they make the call about who and what to put in harm's way.

But what is the FAA going to do about occasional gunfire? When it comes to hazards that aren't other aircraft, the FAA usually leaves the decision up to you. With an instrument rating, so long as there's no other traffic there, the controller will probably honor your routing request to drive your Cessna 172 into the heart of a tornadic level 5 thunderstorm. You will die. But there's no law against stupidity in 14 Code of Federal Regulations.

The FAA could advise people that there are gunshots in region X of the New Orleans airspace---if it's possible to pinpoint it that specifically. They could put a flight restriction on the area, which usually winds up being two miles in diameter at the smallest. Now, imagine that you're the FAA authority who makes that call. Are you really going to prohibit the rescue teams from plucking people off of rooftops in that area? Shouldn't they make that decision for themselves?

Now imagine you're a helicopter pilot. What I'm about to describe may not be the situation you'd actually face over NO, but it sounds plausible to me. You've just pulled someone off a roof, and while sitting there someone took potshots at you. Hurry! You hoist the person into the chopper and take off, low and fast, over the rooftops. The controllers don't have radar, so everyone's reporting their positions verbally. The frequency is packed; there's really no time for other discussion. Meanwhile you're busy flying, looking out the window for more gun-totin' crazies. By the time you feel safe, you're at the base/airport/staging area, and then you tell your CO. Who warns everyone else, so mission accomplished without the FAA ever knowing...

Yeah, it wouldn't take long to mention it to a controller, but then I could just as easily see nobody bothering. And then that busy controller has to pass things up the chain, too...
posted by tss at 1:10 PM on September 3, 2005

It was so dangerous in Iraq they embedded the reporters for reporters own safety....

...or not so dangerous ?
posted by elpapacito at 1:23 PM on September 3, 2005

Also eerily reminiscent of the Hillsbourogh disaster in the UK. Then the UK tabloid the Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch reacted to the tragedy - which saw 96 soccer fans crushed to death during an FA Cup semi-final - with the headline:

The Truth; some fans picked pockets of victims; some fans urinated on the brave cops; some fans beat up PC [Police Constable] giving kiss of life.

It was all bollocks - and deeply offensive to the people of Liverpool whose fans died in the accident. Later, Lord Justice Taylor, who led the official enquiry said:

'The real cause of the Hillsborough disaster [was] overcrowding, the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.'
posted by MrMerlot at 1:36 PM on September 3, 2005

...Do we really need the US Army, whose specialty is to kill people and break things, unleashed on US civilians with shoot to kill orders...

It isn't the army, it is the National Guard. The Constitution forbids the use of the federal military as a police force in the US. The National Guard is state based and gets around the restriction. They are also much more civilian than they are military so they are much more appropriate force to use.
posted by 517 at 1:52 PM on September 3, 2005

Young man "takes" abandoned bus in NO, outspeeds expected bus convoy

It seems he collected and carried 100 people during the 7 hour trip to Astrodome. [Via Boingboing]
posted by elpapacito at 1:56 PM on September 3, 2005 [1 favorite]

Young man "takes" abandoned bus in NO, outspeeds expected bus convoy

One of the more interesting stories, one of those ethical question things. Would you put yourself in harms way, legal harm, to save lives? Did this kid demonstrate the kind of leadership everyone's been missing or is he just a looter, deservedly destined to do jail time?
posted by scheptech at 2:40 PM on September 3, 2005

The Constitution forbids the use of the federal military as a police force in the US.
posted by kickingtheground at 2:58 PM on September 3, 2005

The Constitution forbids the use of the federal military as a police force in the US.

Posse Comitas Act prevents the military from acting as an authority domestically. They can act under the guidance of a civilian authority. They just can't be in charge.
posted by srboisvert at 3:10 PM on September 3, 2005

scheptech: Uh, I'd say the former. Without a doubt.
posted by brundlefly at 3:15 PM on September 3, 2005

kickingtheground, I think what 517 was referring to was the act passed in (I believe 1878) preventin federal soldiers from going to certain southern states as a police force. The spirit of the law was to prevent soldiers from influencing elections, but it is still in effect. So he was way off but there is still a law on the books preventing federal troops from entering into the South.
posted by geoff. at 3:16 PM on September 3, 2005

That's the act srboisvert, from wikipedia:

* National Guard units while under the authority of the governor of a state;
* Troops when used pursuant to the Federal authority to quell domestic violence as was the case during the 1992 Los Angeles riots;
* The President of the United States can waive this law in an emergency;
* In December 1981 additional laws were enacted (codified 10 USC 371-78) clarifying permissible military assistance to civilian law enforcement agencies—including the Coast Guard—especially in combating drug smuggling into the United States. Posse Comitatus clarifications emphasize supportive and technical assistance (e.g., use of facilities, vessels, aircraft, intelligence, tech aid, surveillance) while generally prohibiting direct participation of DoD personnel in law enforcement (e.g., search, seizure, and arrests). For example, Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETS) serve aboard Navy vessels and perform the actual boardings of interdicted suspect drug smuggling vessels and, if needed, arrest their crews.
* Under 18 USC 831, the Attorney General may request that the Secretary of Defense provide emergency assistance if civilian law enforcement is inadequate to address certain types of threat involving the release of nuclear materials, such as potential use of a Nuclear or Radiological weapon. Such assistance may be by any personel under the authority of the Department of Defense, provided such assistance does not adversely affect US military preparedness.

So this shouldn't really be used as an excuse by authorities anywhere, but someone I'm sure will use it to explain why the DoD didn't act sooner in release of troops.
posted by geoff. at 3:20 PM on September 3, 2005

One thing that struck me as strangely encouraging, amid all the reports of "crime" and "savagery", is reporters managed to get in, walk around, talk to people, get photos and make TV reports, and then get back out again, safely and in one piece. The BBC camera crew I brought up in an earlier thread did just fine, for example.

From what I saw in the media and so on I'll bet that during New Orleans' whole emergency far more people in that drowned city died of "natural causes" -- such as the effects of being old, sick and/or frail without decent food, clean water, medical care, and a comfortable place to sleep -- than died of murder and "barbarity". I'll bet more people killed themselves from despair than were killed by their fellow "internal refugees".

Of course we'll probably never know the truth, truth being a spinnable and friable quality even in the best of times, and of course some people (of any race, class, religion or whatever) are prone to commit depradations upon their fellow humans even when there's no "chaos" for miles around, but I would not be surprised if the large majority of the atrocity stories circulated about the crisis in New Orleans proved to be as false and vicious as France's World War I propaganda about "bestial" German soldiers raping nuns in Belgium.
posted by davy at 4:12 PM on September 3, 2005

To answer scheptech, I'll simply quote dilettante .
posted by davy at 4:16 PM on September 3, 2005

Sorry, geoff. has it right. It wasn't the Constitution.
posted by 517 at 6:31 PM on September 3, 2005

Given that racism is a fact of American (well, human) existence, we should be careful what we're regurgitating, especially if it hews to obvious stereotypes. But there are credible reports of violence:

> "When the crowds tried to take the ambulances away from us, we just abandoned the ambulances and locked them up," says Richard Zuschlag, chief executive officer of Acadian Ambulance Service in Lafayette, La. In their second attempt to evacuate Charity Hospital, "we got shot at," Zuschlag says.

The mainly black Superdome evacuees tell of harrowing instances of rape and murder. Geraldo Rivera was told of bodies "in the freezers", but didn't go see them; I wonder if they'll be found. Was the crowd just as prone to myths, without a racist tinge? A very interesting question.

And as for looting, it's certainly a verifiable fact that businesses and homes have been massively looted, and not just in New Orleans. Some of that may be survival-related, but then you have the stores that got burnt down, too.

There was certainly no natural disaster precipitating, for example, the Reginald Denny killing that took place on live television at the outset of the LA riots, and the historical judgement is pretty widely held that blacks took out years of resentment on law enforcement and mainly non-black businesses. This did happen, it is well known who did it, and is it that surprising that similar events take place during a situation of even greater civil breakdown than the LAPD's reluctance to deal with a situation?
posted by dhartung at 8:55 PM on September 3, 2005

in the story you link to, the two murders described were done by police officers. you assume that the bodies in the freezer were murdered when chances are they died from starvation or illness.

a flood just destroyed a city...and you think people are intentionally setting fires??

I'd rethink your comment about "it is well known who did it..." as it speaks highly about what you think is behind all of this. you think this is a riot. it's people starving.
posted by destro at 10:11 PM on September 3, 2005

More grist for the rumor mill: I can remember lo these many years ago (late 80's?) when a plane bound for Phoenix from Detroit crashed. Radio reporters were immediately on-air talking about how they were seeing looters running away with body parts so they could steal rings, watches and whatnot. The looters were, natch, evil black thugs who descended on the scene in gangs from Detroit (the Detroit airport is actually in the 'burbs).

All later proved completely untrue.

However, if I were in NO right now, and taking some food (or goods that I might be able to use for getting food), then I guess that would make me a looter.

And hey! If I used some INITIATIVE and got a busload of people out of there fast (Young man "takes" abandoned bus in NO, outspeeds expected bus convoy), just imagine the reward waiting for my bold action!

Oh, wait, that's right....THAT's illegal. Sitting on your rump and doing nothing...you're a hero/martyr/good one of "them."
posted by MiHail at 10:29 PM on September 3, 2005

destro, you have badly misread me. That's probably my fault.

We're probably not ready to have this conversation. But I assure you that I do not think the things that you are presuming I do. I simply spoke too coldly.

I'm trying to get to the bottom of a social phenomenon, and I don't think it's a dramatic leap to link the riots and the hurricane aftermath. Both are spoken of in terms of being products of institutional racism. I certainly don't believe that all black people are looters, rapists, or "behind" anything. There are individual criminal actors, who in both cases were largely black, who did not represent the majority of the community. (Since I mentioned Reginald Denny, I should also mention that he was saved by black people.) Indeed, if statistics are any guide, blacks suffer much more profoundly from crime of all kinds than do whites.

To briefly respond to your points: the Superdome evacuees told of murders; I did not assume them, and they were different than the people killed outside, which we were again told were by police. I asked whether the tales would be corroborated. I sincerely hope they are not. In any case, such myths have multiple social uses. The worst are obvious. The flip side is that it could all have been something made up to get aid there faster. Or it may just be, as Brooks might suggest, mass hysteria.

But yes, I do think there is real crime happening amid the desolation, and the victims are the people who are stuck in it, who are largely black (even property crimes against absent owners, given NOLA's demographics). I don't think it's possible to simply dismiss all reports as myth, just as I certainly don't agree that any such reports prove anything about black people collectively.

If anything, I'm saying perhaps that the hurricane aftermath created in an instant a microcosm of the conditions of the ghetto. Economic disinvestment. Public protection absent. Collective efficacy smashed. I think this is a lesson from which we can learn a lot. I hope that insight is more clear now.

Again, perhaps it's too early to be having this conversation.
posted by dhartung at 11:20 PM on September 3, 2005

That National Vanguard link is past ridiculous - they have a photo of a young white woman holding a wriggling baby, looking so tired and vulnerable.

They had two different clips of her on the NBC footage. An earlier report, she said that she was doing okay, considering. The later report, (unclear how much later, they were aired in conjunction), she was getting very worried about how listless her baby was from dehydration, but stressed that it "wasn't about black or white, rich or poor" but people who needed help - she was begging help for all the people around her, regardless of race.

And the national vanguard (to be specific, David Duke) now claims that she was a victim of racial hatred.

I wonder if that poor woman will ever know how her picture has been so abused.

I also hope David Duke gets dystentry.
posted by jb at 12:15 AM on September 4, 2005

Seems the New Orleans prison riot was also bogus.
posted by destro at 8:51 PM on September 13, 2005

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