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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 September 2005, 17:31 GMT 18:31 UK
New Orleans violence 'overstated'
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

Sign outside the Convention Center
Stories of widespread rape, looting and murder now appear unfounded
Reports of murder, rape and violence among the thousands trapped in New Orleans' shelters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina shocked the world.

The city's police chief spoke of babies being raped. Mayor Ray Nagin told of Superdome evacuees "watching hooligans killing people, raping people".

Now, a month later, officials say many of the accounts were probably false or greatly exaggerated in a time of chaos.

New Orleans police confirm they have had no official reports of rapes or murders in the days after the city was catastrophically flooded.

And the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals says only two of the 14 bodies found at the Convention Center and Superdome had gunshot wounds. One of those is believed to have been shot elsewhere and brought to the Superdome.

So, is there any truth in the awful image that emerged of New Orleans as a city where killers and rapists roved, even as the flood waters rose?

Or were the accounts simply panic-fuelled rumours that took on the guise of truth as they were repeated by evacuees, officials - and waiting TV crews?

'No trouble'

Capt Marlon Defillo, of the New Orleans Police Department, points the finger squarely at the media for any exaggerated accounts.

"The news media wrote those reports and I cannot tell you where those stories came from," he told the BBC News website.

Police Superintendent Eddie Compass announcing his resignation
Eddie Compass spoke on Oprah Winfrey of babies being raped

"We've not received an official report from anyone regarding any sexual assault that may have occurred... we haven't received any official coroners' reports regarding any homicides."

Police chief Eddie Compass, who spoke on the Oprah Winfrey show of babies being raped, stood down on Tuesday.

He admitted in a New York Times interview last week that some of his claims of tourists being raped and beaten in the street were based on second-hand reports - and had turned out to be untrue.

And the head of security at the Superdome has also stepped forward in recent days to say reports of violence were overblown.

"The incidents were highly exaggerated," Lt Col Jacques Thibodeaux of the Louisiana National Guard told the AP news agency. "For the amount of people in the situation, it was a very stable environment."

'All kinds of mayhem'

Officials say there are several reasons why rumours or inaccuracies ended up being declared as fact by senior figures - not least because some of those in charge knew no more than the stories everyone else was hearing.

"[Mayor Nagin] was listening to officials, trusting that information they were providing was accurate," his spokeswoman, Sally Forman, told reporters.

Women crying as they wait for evacuation from the Superdome
People lived in awful conditions for days as they waited for rescue

Police say a complete "communication breakdown" contributed to the perception of mounting lawlessness.

"We were getting calls that a couple of hospitals were being taken over by looters and raiders and that there was all kinds of mayhem taking place... and we would respond and of course there was nothing," Lt Lawrence McLeary of Louisiana State Police told the BBC News website.

Lt McLeary believes some of the calls may even have come from "hoaxers or pranksters" outside the city.

'No verification'

Whatever the reasons for the apparently false reports, sociologists point out that these kind of tales are common in disaster situations, but do not normally reach the public.

Prof Enrico Quarantelli, who heads the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, agrees the level of violence "clearly was exaggerated" - and says the broadcast media should have done more to scrutinise the accounts.

"Instead of... trying to verify them, they were putting people directly on [air]," he told the BBC News website.

We are really trying to stress to police that just because a rape hasn't been reported, doesn't mean it didn't happen
Judy Benitez
Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault
However, rape support groups have warned against dismissing all accounts of sexual violence simply because no formal reports have been made.

Rape crisis centres have been "deluged" with people needing help, the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault says, but many victims have been unable to reach police to report the crimes.

"They are more concerned right now with 'where are we going to sleep, how are we going to eat, where are we going to get money?'," executive director Judy Benitez said.

"We are really trying to stress to police that just because a rape hasn't been reported, doesn't mean it didn't happen."

'Something was up'

And on the streets of New Orleans, many remain convinced that there is truth to the tales of rape and murder.

Ane Daniels, a 48-year-old hotel cleaner, told the BBC she was warned by a young boy not to take refuge in the Superdome.

"He said, 'don't go up there ma'am - they are killing people and they are raping people'. And if a 12 -year-old boy is saying that, you know something is up."

Others believe deliberate attempts are now under way to play down the violence.

"I think the US media are just covering up what really happened because this city lives on tourism," said Mike Maver, an Illinois firefighter who has been assisting the relief effort.

"And if the tourists are frightened and don't come back, this city will never survive."

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