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Misleading media reports of lawlessness after Katrina worsened crisis, officials say

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Misinformation during hurricane Katrina over how lawless New Orleans had become made the situation far worse, according to both the man who was in charge of the troops on the ground during the disaster and the state governor.

Lieutenant General Russel Honoré coordinated around 300 national guardsmen sent in to keep order in the aftermath of the hurricane which devastated the region 10 years ago this month .

While television images did capture people grabbing electronics and other valuable goods from local retail outlets, the majority of looters were hunting for bare essentials such as food, water, diapers, and medicine, he said.

Related: Back on song: New Orleans 10 years after Katrina

In one incident at the time on Danziger bridge, two unarmed civilians were shot dead by local police.

In a Guardian interview, Honoré, now retired, said: “It was way over-reported. People confused looting with people going into survival mode. It’ll happen to you and I if we were just as isolated.”

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Honoré says once the military took hold of the city, he had to deal with “a constant reaction to misinformation … Some of the [media] were giving information that wasn’t correct … Much of it was uncorroborated information probably given with the best of intentions.” One such story came from within the ranks: Chris Kyle, the late navy Seal portrayed in the Clint Eastwood film American Sniper, claimed he sat atop the Superdome and picked off 30 looters.

Honoré describe claims by Kyle as “war story bullshit”. “I was at the Superdome and would know if there was a rifle up there shooting. I can tell you there were no navy Seals operating as snipers in New Orleans.”

Fear of looting also prompted local officials to overreact, he said. In a midweek press conference, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco warned looters that local troops “have M16s and they’re locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.”

Many took her words as a declaration of martial law, although Blanco told the Guardian that was never the intent. “I did not declare martial law. It was not legal,” she said. Honoré said he disagreed with Blanco about the statement, telling her: “I don’t think you want to put that out. Because while the local press may make you perceive you have civil disorder, you don’t. Just because a reporter sees some dude in waist-deep water with a TV on his back is not a reason to shoot.”

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Blanco said her statement was intended to “stop the noise” and send the message, not just to looters but to everyone else, that things were under control.

Hyped stories were difficult to verify because of circumstance. Since the flooding confined the media largely to one area downtown, journalists could not report with depth what was happening in the neighborhoods, which created an information vacuum. Gunshots fired in the air, for example, intended to attract attention from rescuers were often translated as attacks upon helicopters.

Blanco said the media amplified stories of widespread violence it could not verify, which impacted rescue operations. For example, she said school bus drivers refused to drive their vehicles into New Orleans to help in the evacuation because of the dangerous situation they heard about on television. Blanco enlisted the national guard to drive the buses instead.

“We knew there would certainly be some criminal element, but this rampant violence that was reported was definitely out of proportion to the reality. But in those moments, when we had so much work to do, the reports were frightening the rescuers. It just became very unnerving.”

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At the time, fear of looting led to the formation of quasi-militia groups, primarily made up of white residents or local police, who guarded areas in and around New Orleans, leading to racially motivated violence that would take years to prosecute. One of the most serious cases involved members of the New Orleans police department who, six days after the hurricane hit, stormed a local canal bridge and fired upon a group of unarmed civilians, killing two men and wounding several others. Ronald Madison, one of the men killed, was mentally disabled. Court testimony show police shot him in the back with a shotgun and then stomped on him as he lay dying.

A federal jury convicted five officers in 2012 of charges related to civil rights violations and obstructing justice, but due to prosecutorial misconduct, the convictions were overturned and a new trial is pending.

Other militia groups formed in and around Algiers Point, a primarily white enclave located across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans. Fear of looters led to the formations of barricades and guard posts in an effort to keep people seeking refuge at bay. Henry Glover, an unarmed black man, was shot and burned by local police officers, after he was discovered prowling a local strip mall looking for baby supplies. Gregory McRae, the officer convicted of burning Glover’s body , is serving a 17-year federal sentence, while a federal jury acquitted David Warren, the second officer, saying Warren fired in self-defense, mistakenly believing Glover was armed. Two other officers were also acquitted.

In April, New Orleans coroner Jeffrey Rouse ruled that Glover died in a homicide, a reversal of a ruling from his predecessor who first ruled that the cause of death was accidental and then concluded that it was “undetermined”. It is not clear whether the new ruling will lead to new charges.

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In 2012, current New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu announced the results of a consent decree between the city and the civil rights division of the US Justice Department in an effort to reform the police department. At the time, police superintendent Ronal Serpas said the reforms will help his department get “closer to becoming more of the NOPD we want to be” and will create “a model police department in the near future”. The Guardian requested a current response from the police department but had not received one at the time of publication.

Local police in Gretna, a predominantly white suburb on the city’s West Bank, set up barricades on the Crescent City Connection, a federal bridge crossing the Mississippi River, refusing residents entry to their side. “Lots of these people were poor who were caught into something that was bigger than everybody,” said Leo Boeche, 61, a sergeant with the California National Guard who was leading a battalion into the city. When people started streaming across the bridge seeking shelter on foot and in buses, Boeche said, the local police started “pumping all their shotguns into the air” and told them to go back where they came from. They were working under the order of police chief Arthur Lawson, who ordered the federal bridge closed even though he did not have the authority to do so. “He was turning everybody back,” Boeche said.

Related: After Katrina: New Orleans then and now – interactive photographs

Eighty per cent of New Orleans was submerged that first week, which sent thousands of people to the Superdome and the Ernest N Morial Convention Center, two large-scale facilities in the city’s downtown that served as vestiges of last resort for people who had little means to evacuate the city days before.

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Early news stories reported rapes and shootings in both facilities. In July 2006, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center reported that a total of 47 rapes took place during both Katrina and hurricane Rita, three weeks later. Thirty-one per cent took place in some kind of emergency shelter. The data is not from police reports but a result from an emailed survey sent to victim advocacy, criminal justice, and medical organizations that dealt with survivors.

New Orleans was in desperate need of a military presence because local police were undermanned due to flooded precinct buildings and officers not showing up for work because, like many in New Orleans, they were helping their families evacuate. Nearly 2,000 national guardsmen were sent from different states to engage in search-and-rescue missions that were performed door-to-door.

The guardsmen set up base in a middle school in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, where they searched houses for survivors by foot and by boat, using a platoon of boats they would find in backyards and garages. Mike Kelly, 60, a former sniper in Iraq who was shipped to New Orleans with the national guard, said people they encountered were often afraid of being forced to leave their houses.

“I would tell them: ‘All you have to do is show me you have food and water and your animals have food and water and you can stay,’” he said. His battalion cleared 1,034 homes.

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The most dangerous element in the early days of the flood consisted of drug addicts who were unpredictable, especially if armed, he said. They represented the majority of looters who were stealing in order to stock up on goods to pay for their habits. The Guardsmen often found stash houses filled with electronic goods intended for future sale.

Kelly says he also had to chase away another unpredictable form of looter: New Orleans police officers found rummaging through the local Walmart. He says his team discovered several officers grabbing sporting goods and clothing from the store, which had its doors ripped off their hinges. After an initial confrontation, the officers left. “I own this town. You don’t. Now get the [expletive] out of here,” Kelly said he told them.

In 2006, four New Orleans police officers were cleared of allegations of looting by the department, but each was suspended for 10 days without pay.

Related: New Orleans, 10 years after Katrina: do residents feel more prepared?

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Many of the guardsmen arrived in New Orleans fresh from yearlong tours in Iraq. What they encountered during Katrina was eerily similar. Alan Miranda, 43, a national guardsman from San Diego and a corporal in Iraq in 2004, says because of the power outage, nighttime Humvee patrols were conducted in complete darkness. “It was about as close to a police state as you could get,” he said.

When they arrived, they dealt with chasing looters and dodging potshots, but within a week, things had stabilized and the violence died down. However, encountering dead bodies in the water became common. Oftentimes, guardsmen were ordered to note the bodies’ location for later pick-up. If the water was moving fast, they would be forced to tie the body to a permanent object. Many of the bodies Miranda said he discovered had obvious gun wounds, suggesting they “did not die of natural causes”.

“There were a lot of grudges settled at that time,” he said.

Kelly says most of the dead bodies he found had belonged to elderly people, including a man he found in a front yard whose right arm was apparently stuck in a hedge. “What bothered me is that someone ran out and left them,” he says. “It broke my heart.”

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Occasionally there were brief signs of hope. On the second floor of an abandoned hospital, Kelly’s team heard noise and found a litter of pit bull puppies, two of them dead. He found an empty trashcan and gently placed the surviving dogs inside, including the mother. He carried them back and handed them off to a local shelter.

Ten years later, the memory still burns. “It’s the happy things you try to hang onto,” he said.

By: Mark Guarino

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015

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