Letters: New Orleans Katrina Rumors

Erik Larsen, author of Isaac's Storm, an account of the Galveston hurricane, answers questions concerning a rumor about bodies found tied to a rope in a New Orleans suburb after Katrina swept through.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now your e-mails. For the past several years, we've done our letters segment on Mondays, but with our new Opinion Page feature on that day, we now move letters to Tuesday.

Our show on rumors last week brought in quite a few e-mails, many of them referring to the rumor that we debunked about 22 bodies found tied to a rope in a New Orleans suburb after Katrina swept through. Will Thompson wrote in with an idea about the rumor's origin. `In the late 19th-century Midwest, there was the tale of a schoolteacher who roped together her students and led them a mile through the snow to safety. Perhaps hopes of cooperation and courage during a natural disaster gave the story new life.'

James Cote(ph) had the same idea, but a different source. `Whenever a major emotional event occurs, we need to put it in perspective and have something to tie our swirling emotions to, lest we be overwhelmed by the enormity of the event,' he wrote. `When Katrina occurred, the news channels made varied references to the Galveston hurricane at the turn of the 20th century. One of the more searing images reported was of nuns at an orphanage tying themselves to children to save them. They were later found dead tied together. I can see how someone looking to fill in the void of information and to anchor their emotions could, if you will, use the image of 22 people on a rope to convey the enormity of the event.'

Well, joining us now from his home in Seattle is Erik Larson. He's the author of "Isaac's Storm," an account of the Galveston hurricane which left 5,000 people dead in its wake.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ERIK LARSON (Author, "Isaac's Storm"): Thank you.

CONAN: First of all, that story of the nuns--is that right?

Mr. LARSON: Well, it appears to be correct. You know, one always has to have a caveat when one deals with history, but it is so well-documented in the history of the Galveston storm, everything from eyewitness accounts to an account in The New York Times and then a couple of pretty good histories. So, yeah, it's a true story. And in that case, it was not, you know, 20 or 90 kids tied together. It was the fact that at this orphanage, the nuns decided to tie groups of children together in I think it was groups of 10, and one such group was found.

CONAN: So more or less, the story is accurate.

Mr. LARSON: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. In fact, there was a ship captain who reported seeing three children--the corpses of three children tied together, so that's sort of further corroboration.

CONAN: Were there rumors also after Galveston?

Mr. LARSON: Yes. I mean, rumors were rife. And it's funny, it kind of reflects the--in this case, unfortunately, the sort of racialist patterns of the time. The most common rumor was that black residents of the population were roaming Galveston, stealing jewelry from corpses; in some cases, cutting off fingers to get the rings, or even in one outrageous rumor, biting off a finger to get at a ring. Completely untrue, completely unfounded. And yet, it just circulated for months after the storm.

CONAN: Erik Larson, thanks very much.

Mr. LARSON: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Erik Larson is the author of "Isaac's Storm," a book about the hurricane in Galveston, Texas.

Last week, we also covered a story about Wikipedia, the online reference site. The story was about false information on the site that linked journalist John Seigenthaler to the John F. Kennedy assassination. This week, Brian Chase, an operations manager at a Nashville delivery company, admitted to posting the hoax. Chase says it was a gag gone wrong and apologized to Seigenthaler. Chase resigned from his job. Seigenthaler says he has no plans to sue and hopes that Chase gets his job back.

You can send us an e-mail with your questions and comments. That's the best way to reach us. The address is totn@npr.org. Be sure to tell us where you're writing from and give us some help on how to pronounce your name.

(Credits)

CONAN: In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.

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