RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
Law enforcement authorities dismissed reports of widespread rapes in New Orleans during the lawless days following Hurricane Katrina, but growing evidence suggests there were more storm-related sexual assaults than previously known. Female victims now displaced from New Orleans are slowly coming forward with their stories, as NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT reporting:
Two national crime victims groups have reported a spike in the number of reported rapes that happened to storm evacuees. The numbers are not dramatic but they're significant when seen in light of the official number of post-Katrina rapes and attempted rapes: four. Judy Benitez is executive director of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, a statewide coalition of rape crisis centers. She says as she watched New Orleans descend into chaos after Katrina, she knew what would happen.
Ms. JUDY BENITEZ (Executive Director, Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault): So what you had was a situation where you've got a tremendous number of vulnerable people and then some predatory people who had all of the reasons to want to, you know, take out their anger on someone else and also drug and alcohol use is another contributing factor, and no police presence to prevent them from doing whatever they wanted to to whomever they wanted to.
BURNETT: Concerned over unreported and underreported rapes, her organization together with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, created a national database to track sexual assaults that happened after Katrina. In the six weeks since the Web site has been up, with almost no publicity it has received 42 reports of sexual assaults. A spokesperson with the resource center said the number is steadily growing. Already these preliminary cases show a high number of gang rapes and rapes by strangers, both unusual characteristics. The 42 reports include assaults that happened inside New Orleans and outside the city, for instance, in host homes. Another group, Witness Justice, a Maryland-based non-profit that assists victims of violent crimes, claims to have received 156 reports of post-Katrina violent crimes, about a third of those sexual assaults. One of the victims is Miss Lewis(ph), a 46-year-old home health-care worker from New Orleans East who asked that her first name not be used. She sits on the edge of a bed in a dingy, dimly lit room in a motel in Baton Rouge. She begins her story on Monday, August 29, the day of the storm.
Miss LEWIS: On Monday, we didn't have any lights. We didn't have any water. It was dark then. Some terrible things happened there. Some bad things happened, and there was nobody there to protect you.
BURNETT: As Miss Lewis attempts to relate the details of her attack, she is unable to continue.
Miss LEWIS: They just left us to die. Nobody cared. (Crying) Oh, God, help me.
BURNETT: The account of her rape was verified by a trained forensic nurse at Earl K. Long Hospital in Baton Rouge where Miss Lewis sought treatment. She and others had taken refuge in the Redemption Elderly Apartments(ph) in the Irish Channel section of New Orleans. On that first night after the storm, the city had lost power and she was sleeping in a dark hallway trying to catch a breeze. It was there, she says, that an unknown man with a handgun sexually assaulted her. She insists other women were raped in the same apartment building over the next four nights, but her claim could not be checked out. After her rape, Miss Lewis says there were no clinics open and so she washed herself with bleach.
Miss LEWIS: And all I could do was pray, pray for rescue, prayed so I wouldn't have any type of transmitted disease.
BURNETT: Miss Lewis says later in the week, National Guardsmen forced evacuees out of the building at gunpoint, and she was finally able to leave the city on Saturday. She says she tried to report the assault at the time.
Miss LEWIS: When you tried to talk to them, they just didn't care. They didn't want to hear anything. The police was overburdened and stressed out themselves. They didn't have food. They didn't have water. They didn't have communication. They didn't have ammunition. And the National Guards--they just didn't want to hear it.
BURNETT: It was, experts say, the perfect environment to commit a crime and the worst environment to report a crime. The Police Department, reeling from desertions, flooding and the immensity of the disaster, was in a survival mode itself and civil order had completely broken down. Anastasia(ph) is a petite 25-year-old hairdresser who asked that her last name be omitted. She contacted the New Orleans police in October and filed a report that she was beaten with a bat and raped on September 6th in broad daylight next to a flooded McDonald's at Gentilly Boulevard and Elysian Fields near her father's house.
ANASTASIA: You know, I should have been smarter being a small person.
BURNETT: She sits on a sofa in a shabby rent house in central Louisiana where she's recovering, surrounded by dark and depressing artwork that she's been painting since the attack. Anastasia says thugs were still wandering the streets of her neighborhood more than a week after the flood.
ANASTASIA: I think after eight days, they just believe--I mean, I didn't see any police officers. I could have gotten away with murder, it was that terrible. So I can assume the criminals were thinking, and that's exactly what happened.
BURNETT: Under the best of circumstances, rape is one of the hardest crimes to solve. In New Orleans last year, there was a rape every other day on average. National surveys show that half of all sexual assaults are never reported. Judy Benitez of the Louisiana rape crisis group says the non-report rape would be far higher given the nightmare of Katrina.
Ms. BENITEZ: The fact that something wasn't reported to the police doesn't mean it didn't happen. We know about all the other things that happened--all the thefts, all the robberies. I mean, there was all kinds of crime that was taking place on a much higher level than there normally would be. Why would we think that there was less rape than would be typical during any given week in the city? It just doesn't make any sense.
BURNETT: Benitez and others interviewed for this report believe that police authorities who were anxious to discount initially exaggerated reports of mayhem are downplaying violent crimes that happened in the anarchy after the storm.
Lieutenant DAVE BENELLI (New Orleans Police Department): We're not downsizing anything. I'm telling you the number of reported rapes we had.
BURNETT: Lieutenant Dave Benelli, commander of the sex crimes unit with the New Orleans Police Department, says his team investigated two attempted rapes inside the Superdome and two additional reports of rapes that happened in the city, one of which was the 25-year-old hairdresser. When presented with the additional cases collected by victims advocates groups, Benelli acknowledges they simply don't know the extent of sex crimes after the storm.
Lt. BENELLI: I admit that rapes is underreported. I know more sexual assaults have took place, and I've expressed many times that we're willing to investigate any instance of sexual assault that happened in the city at any time. We can only deal with that of what we know.
BURNETT: The California Disaster Medical Assistance Team spent 24 hellish hours inside the Superdome. Team members said they delivered babies, treated gunshot and stab wounds and ultimately fled for their own safety. Commander Dave Lipin says they saw two women who said they'd been raped, different women from those the police attended to. He says they only saw a fraction of the desperate people who sought assistance. Lipin says when he arrived in Baton Rouge and turned on the television, he was surprised by reports of rampant violence in New Orleans.
Commander DAVE LIPIN: I think that that was probably overreported, and so now I think it's probably swung in the other direction. I think it's underreported. I don't know why. My sense now is that there are victims out there whose stories haven't been heard.
BURNETT: In an effort to get victims to come forward, the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault asked a popular New Orleans jazz singer to tape a public service announcement for national air play.
Ms. CHARMAINE NEVILLE: Hi. My name is Charmaine Neville. I was in New Orleans at a school after Hurricane Katrina, and I was raped. I know that many other women were raped and are afraid to talk about it. You know, you don't have to be afraid. Call 1 (800) 656-HOPE. Find...
BURNETT: Charmaine Neville, a member of the famous musical dynasty, says she was sexually assaulted early the morning of August 31st while she was sleeping on the roof of Drew Elementary School in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans where she and others had taken refuge. She made a report to a local sheriff's office which has not yet passed that report on to the New Orleans police. Miss Lewis, the 46-year-old home health-care worker, has still not reported her assault to the police and has no plans to. Believing the authorities abandoned her after the storm, she wonders why would they care about her now.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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