Bonus Episode: Katrina, 15 Years Later : Code Switch It's hurricane season, so this week, we're bringing you a bonus episode, from the Atlantic's Floodlines podcast. On this episode, "Through the Looking Glass," host Vann R. Newkirk II looks at the way the media distorted what was happening in New Orleans in the days after the storm, scapegoating Black people for the devastation they were subjected to.
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Bonus Episode: Katrina, 15 Years Later

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Bonus Episode: Katrina, 15 Years Later

Bonus Episode: Katrina, 15 Years Later

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I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.


I'm Gene Demby. And this is CODE SWITCH.


DEMBY: Y'all, for the past week, Hurricane Isaias has been tearing up the East Coast.

MERAJI: People have lost power. Homes have been destroyed. And as of when we're recording this episode, it's just the beginning of hurricane season. But we're nowhere near the kind of damage and destruction that happened 15 years ago this month. Gene, you know what I'm talking about.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm, Hurricane Katrina. As many of our listeners will remember, that storm absolutely devastated New Orleans. When the levees broke, entire neighborhoods were flooded. People were left without electricity for months. More than 1,800 people died. Thousands of New Orleanians were refugees in their own city, and many wound up leaving New Orleans permanently for Houston, Arkansas and other places.

MERAJI: And the neighborhoods hit hardest, as many people listening to this already know, were poor, Black neighborhoods. And those neighborhoods, many of them have still not recovered 15 years later. Over the years, especially during these anniversaries, many people have criticized the government's response to the crisis. But this week on the show we're bringing you an episode of the new "Floodlines" podcast from The Atlantic. And this episode gets into the many ways the media failed in the aftermath of that storm and how coverage of Katrina exacerbated the already severe racial inequities in New Orleans.

DEMBY: So here's Episode 3 of "Floodlines" with host Vann R. Newkirk II. It begins in the days after the storm first hit.


VANN R NEWKIRK II: Most of the Lower Ninth Ward was already underwater. Lots of people were missing. Lots of people were gone. Alice Craft-Kearney was trapped there in her brother's three-story house on the high ground. After Katrina, it was basically an island in the darkness.

ALICE CRAFT-KEARNEY: At night it was pitch black except for the fires that had erupted because of gas. You could see that lighting up the sky.

NEWKIRK: More than 30 people were stuffed into the house - family, friends, neighbors they'd saved.

CRAFT-KEARNEY: But the eeriest thing was to hear voices of people at night crying, help, help. And you heard them, but you couldn't help them.

NEWKIRK: Alice and her family were relatively lucky. There was no running water, but they had food and a generator. They just waited.

CRAFT-KEARNEY: We heard the helicopters passing all the time, but they never stopped for us.

NEWKIRK: Coast Guard and National Guard helicopters were flying low, searching for survivors. But since they were in a decent shelter already, Alice's family and friends figured they weren't a priority yet.

CRAFT-KEARNEY: I understood it. My brother was military, so he understood it. You have your mission. You have to go where they send you. But the question was, when are we going to get rescued?

NEWKIRK: There was no way to know. Most cell towers were down in the city. At this point, New Orleans was almost a dead zone.

CRAFT-KEARNEY: I had to go all the way up to the roof to get that signal. I had a Verizon at that time. (Laughter) Can you hear me now?

NEWKIRK: Wait, you went up to the roof?

CRAFT-KEARNEY: (Laughter) I'm going to give them that shoutout. Verizon was...

NEWKIRK: Alice and her family had one other line to the outside - a working TV.


BOB SCHIEFFER: Most of New Orleans is underwater tonight as...

NEWKIRK: They would get together and watch one channel - Channel 4.


SCHIEFFER: Good evening. I'm Bob Schieffer. For the people along the Gulf Coast, it is a catastrophe.

NEWKIRK: They'd tune in and watch the catastrophe unfold on TV, the catastrophe they were experiencing


SCHIEFFER: Billions in damage and a death toll that cannot yet be calculated.

NEWKIRK: They would see reports about all the people who hadn't been saved yet while they were waiting to be saved.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: And we have been touring the flooded streets of New Orleans today. We'll have full coverage throughout the hurricane zone tonight - what FEMA now calls the most significant natural disaster to ever hit the United States.

NEWKIRK: It was surreal. Strictly speaking, some of it wasn't real at all. Misinformation is common after any disaster. In fact, it's so common it has a name - disaster myth. But the mythmaking after Katrina was extreme, so extreme that in the days after the storm, it was like New Orleans existed in two parallel universes. One was a universe that Alice lived in, stuck in that house in the Lower Ninth Ward. The other was one she was watching on TV. In the real universe, people like Alice were doing their best to keep each other alive with no help from the outside.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Hurricane Katrina, now a mere tropical depression over the state of Tennessee...

NEWKIRK: In the media universe, everything was distorted.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: But the disaster it left behind grows by the hour. And it is not simply a natural disaster. Tonight, it is becoming the sort of disaster humans cause. There is looting and lawlessness, overwhelming...

NEWKIRK: In the eyes of the media, it was often the victims themselves who were to blame.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Well, Aaron (ph), you mentioned the danger from Mother Nature, from the flooding like that. There's another danger here in New Orleans tonight. And it's from some of the people who are still here.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The worst of Mother Nature may have passed. The worst in men is still a problem.


NEWKIRK: Part 3: Through the Looking Glass.

Katrina happened during a weird technological moment. It was the era of the 24-hour cable news broadcast but before everybody had smartphones and social media. National audiences expected around-the-clock coverage about the disaster, but the national media didn't have around-the-clock information.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: A major breach in a levee overnight sent more water pouring into an already flooded city. Efforts to fix it have failed. And the water is expected to begin rising rapidly yet again...

NEWKIRK: The city was mostly blacked out by the storm. And the media relied on partial and often secondhand reports. And they were behind. On Tuesday, the nightly national news broadcast finally caught up to local reporting about the levee breaches. And a particular narrative began to emerge - chaos.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Gangs of thieves who armed themselves from local stores now roam the streets looting even the hospitals. It's forced state officials to divert scarce resources to neighborhood patrols, hoping that a show of force will keep the looting in check.

NEWKIRK: Looting became a fixation. Sometimes reporters would make attempts at empathy.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Looting continued throughout the downtown area today. It isn't a game for many of these people. It's a matter of survival.

NEWKIRK: Lots of other times, they were just snitching.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You think it's OK to take that? You stole it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You're not supposed to do that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I know we don’t. But if we’re barefoot and we’re walking in the water, our feets is going to get cut.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Looting is widespread. Police stop them when they can. But most of it is going undeterred in broad daylight.

NEWKIRK: Reporters seemed especially interested in images of people taking TVs or Jordans. You would see the same reels of the same Black people going into the same stores over and over.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: I mean, first of all, is there anything left to loot? And are people still looting? And is there nothing that can be done about it?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: The things that I witnessed today, Ted, I will never forget, looting on a scale that was just so staggering, so overwhelming. It was open season. The city has been ravaged by the hurricane. And now it's being ravaged by some of its citizens.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: But do you have any sense of people who are breaking into stores because they have no food, they have no water and they need both, and how many people are stealing guns and beer and sneakers and what have you?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12: I think you have more of that going on than people looking for food...

NEWKIRK: There were a lot of reporters trying to make a distinction between good looters and bad looters. But the fixation on looting in the first place was a distraction.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #13: This is the center of one of the great cities of America - New Orleans. Here we have a virtual refugee camp with thousands of people waiting for some sort of help - medical, food, water, you name it. And then over there, the police - scores of police officers all concerned about one looter who's in that supermarket.

NEWKIRK: It was like all the suffering was invisible to some people. All they could see was crime.






UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #18: Looting. Is it a fight for survival?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #19: One tourist inside the city who snapped pictures of looting in the French Quarter called the scene insane. That tourist likened it to downtown Baghdad.

NEWKIRK: I mean, Baghdad, really? A lot of the reporting was like this, dramatic to the point of absurdity. They'd pick up on a scary-sounding detail...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #20: We've just gotten a very disturbing report from inside the city of New Orleans from our own correspondent in there, Jeff Goldblatt, who says he's just witnessed citizens of New Orleans walking around with AK-47s on the streets.

NEWKIRK: ...And then that detail would get warped and sensationalized.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #21: Two guys he told me with AK-47s just shooting at police officers. No one was hurt. The guys fled into the French Quarter. They got away.

NEWKIRK: We do know that some folks did carry assault rifles. Lots of them were themselves police officers or security. But these reports made it seem like the city was being taken over by murderers. There was a rumor that the Superdome was a hot spot for killings, that a national guardsman had found dozens of dead bodies in a freezer, including a 7-year-old with her throat cut. It wasn't true. Reporting like this had real-life consequences. If you think you're in a war zone, then every person looks like a combatant.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #22: We're told someone opened fire on a military chopper here to help out with rescue efforts.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #23: Ambulances halted their evacuation of people from the Superdome this morning when gunshots were fired. Rescue helicopters have come under fire, too. The largest ambulance service says it will have to severely cut back its rescue efforts if security doesn't improve.

NEWKIRK: In the final telling, there were no helicopters with bullet holes - no ambulances either. But that didn't matter. The rumors slowed down the response anyway.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #24: Police in the city of New Orleans, 1,500 of them, have now been called off their search and rescue work to simply deal with the lawlessness in the city.

DEBORAH FEYERICK: One state senator summed up the danger. You can't rescue people when you're being shot at.

ROBERT MARIONNEAUX: Right now the plan is to restore order because you can't even get the emergency response personnel into the city.

NEWKIRK: The Pentagon was considering an armed military response. A FEMA official said that some doctors were required to get armed escorts just to walk across the street. The hysteria got so bad that the Southeastern Louisiana Chapter of the Red Cross waited a month to get to New Orleans. The CEO said they had to wait until the city was safe.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #25: The criminal element had taken advantage of the opportunity when there’s no lights, no electricity and no one around to burglarize and loot.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #26: It is a war zone, an absolute war zone. People are getting killed and raped.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #27: Women left alone and looters left to roam free.

NEWKIRK: There were lots of reports to aid workers about sexual assaults in shelters, especially after evacuation. But many of the most sensational stories that circulated on TV that week were never substantiated, stories of rapes of children and murders of rape victims. The police chief even repeated a lot of them.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #28: Groups of young men have been roaming the city, shooting at people, attempting to rape young women...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #29: Sniper or snipers reportedly picking off people as they try to leave.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #28: The men who are left on the street with these guns are the hardest of the hard.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #30: Sergeant, when you hear them, you're hearing the same stuff we're hearing coming out of New Orleans. And you hear about this state of anarchy. You hear about people getting killed, people getting shot at, helicopters getting shot at. What do you make of all this?

NEWKIRK: We actually know what people made of all this. In a Gallup poll released weeks after Katrina, most Americans said they thought the residents of New Orleans handled things poorly right after the storm. A quarter of all Americans blamed the residents themselves for the disaster. Almost half said the looters they saw on TV were quote, unquote, "criminals." The vast majority of people in the poll thought the media was pretty much on the level, that they acted responsibly. Nothing to see here. But people who were actually there, better yet, the people like Alice who were actually there and were watching the whole mess on TV, they saw things differently.

CRAFT-KEARNEY: It was the way everything was framed. It was like, if it's a certain group of people, they're commandeering, where if it's another group of people, they're looting. We're trying to survive. We're trying to do the very same thing in a bad situation. But it was the way that everything was framed with us. It's painful to think about.


NEWKIRK: The house in Holy Cross was hot. There was no running water. Alice was both bored and afraid. She saw her own people become targets, and she was furious. But she would be the first to tell you she was lucky in all this. She watched the worst of it from afar. Up close, for the people in the crosshairs, it wasn't just infuriating. It was dangerous.

The Ernest Morial Convention Center is a landmark. It's absolutely huge - takes up about 10 city blocks in downtown New Orleans. If you're driving towards the river, you can see it on the horizon like a stadium or an airport. It's one of those places that you think is going to be around forever. That's why, even though it was never an official shelter during Katrina, you can understand why people decided to go there.

Le-Ann Williams and her family had heard horror stories about the violence and conditions in the Superdome. The rumors got to them, too, so they decided to head for the convention center instead.

LE-ANN WILLIAMS: We got off on the Tchoupitoulas exit. And we were sitting under the bridge. And me and my cousins Aralle, Archenekia, Jesse, and Jessica, we was playing Pitty Pat. And the cards was worn down because they been through water and everything in my backpack.

NEWKIRK: The kids entertained themselves playing cards. They'd had a rough couple days. If they were looking for some relief as they entered the convention center, they didn't find it.

WILLIAMS: I just remember it being hot, smelly, just was a smell, like, people ain't take a bath in days. And people crammed up in the heat. It was stink. And then the bathrooms would overflowed. When my little brother tried to use the bathroom and we went in there with my mom, the toilets was filled with urine and poo. And it was all in the sink and on the - he just had to use the bathroom on the floor because he couldn’t go into the bathroom stall. They had it everywhere.

NEWKIRK: Mayor Nagin had made the Superdome the official refuge of last resort. The government had brought troops, medicine, food and water there. But none of that stuff was at the convention center.

WILLIAMS: When we made it there, my stepdad and Jumping Jack left to go find food. And I remember them coming back with pork skins and, like, three cans of beans. So we just was sitting there, just sitting there, sitting there, nighttime coming. I remember we went to sleep. We went to sleep on the floor, all of us.

NEWKIRK: There wasn't much reporting about what was going on at the convention center, at least not at that point. But what did come out described the place as a war zone.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #31: They were told to come here. Local authorities said it would be a safe place. But there's no electricity, no food, no water. Police say...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #32: We saw dead bodies. People are dying there at the convention center.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #33: With a dangerous cocktail of anger, fear and desperation brewing, 88 police officers were sent to deal with matters there. A mob beat them back, according to the chief of police.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #34: Fifteen thousand people in the city's convention center alone. And we should warn you already, some of the scenes we saw there are some of the most gruesome pictures so far in this crisis. There is looting. There is shooting...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #35: We saw, Chris, a report that there are something like a hundred armed men inside the convention center sort of holding the center, if you will, away from police. Do you know anything about that? Have police told you anything about that? Why can't the police go in there and take...

NEWKIRK: This wasn't true. The fact that so many people were willing to take these stories at face value is evidence of how intense the paranoia was. In the end, it turned out that one person total was shot in the convention center. Later, authorities would search all 19,000 people there. They found 13 weapons. But the picture from the mayor and the police chief was of a place that was too dangerous to save. The only authorities that Le-Ann encountered were a small detachment of National Guardsmen who were holed up there before the storm. They were there to fix levee breaches. Le-Ann could see them huddled together when she looked up at the floors above her.

WILLIAMS: And they're just sitting up there, like, with the rifles on them. And they’re not telling us nothing. They just watching us.

NEWKIRK: The National Guardsmen set up their staging ground in an exhibit hall. But they weren't actually equipped to help the people around them. They were stranded, too. Leadership told those guardsmen not to enter the crowd because it might get out of control. But Le-Ann didn't know all that. All she saw was military personnel with their guns trained on her.

WILLIAMS: Like, not interacting with us, telling us what's going on, just sitting in the ceiling with rifles on them, like, in a position ready to shoot. So I didn't understand why they was doing that instead of being down here helping us or bringing food and water. Like, why are we being treated like dogs? The way I feel I was like, well, damn, they left us here to die. Like, they really don't care. Who cares about a poor, Black, 14-year-old girl? Who worrying about me? Who wants to come save us? They showing us not nobody.

NEWKIRK: Le-Ann's aunt heard that somebody was going to send buses to come pick everyone up. But at this point, the aunt hadn't seen any authorities willing to help. She'd had to find her own food. Her family had to walk to the convention center on their own. When they got there, the only soldiers they could find pointed their guns at them. If she had any hope that somebody might view her as worthy of rescue, that hope was long gone now.

WILLIAMS: I'm like, they lying. We're still here. I'm hearing all this, so now I'm starting to see that nobody's coming for us. So I told my mom, I said - I just yanked on my mom, I remember, and she turned to me and I just cried. I said, Mom, just tell me the truth. We going to die. And she was like, what? And I said, nobody's not coming to save us. I said, they don't care about us. I said, the president, nobody is coming. I said, we still here - no food, no water. I said, I'm not my brother and my sister. I'm older. I understand. I said, just tell me the truth.


ROBERT SIEGEL: Let me ask you about images that many Americans are seeing today and hearing about. They are from the convention center in New Orleans...

NEWKIRK: There were moments when journalists got things right, when they pushed against government officials and cut through all the bullshit. On Thursday afternoon, NPR's Robert Siegel interviewed Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA. In its coverage, NPR still focused on a lot of stuff, like the Superdome and looting, which was standard reporting at that point. But then Siegel started asking about the convention center.


SIEGEL: How many days before your operation finds these people, brings them at least food, water, medical supplies, if not gets them out of there?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, first, let me tell you there have been deliveries of food, water, and medical supplies to the Superdome. And that’s happened almost from the very beginning.

SIEGEL: But this is the convention center. These are people who are not allowed inside the Superdome.

CHERTOFF: Well, the people - there have been - we have...

NEWKIRK: Chertoff just ignores the question. Siegel tries again.


SIEGEL: We are hearing from our reporter - and he’s on another line right now - thousands of people at the convention center in New Orleans with no food - zero.

CHERTOFF: As I say, I’m telling you that we are getting food and water to areas where people are staging. And, you know, the one thing about an episode like this is if you talk to someone and you get a rumor or you get someone’s anecdotal version of something, I think it’s dangerous to extrapolate it all over the place.

NEWKIRK: This is a week where stories about all kinds of violence were taken seriously, a week where snipers were believed to be shooting helicopters. But somehow the imminently verifiable fact of thousands of people sitting in a giant building in the middle of town was too much rumor for FEMA.


SIEGEL: But, Mr. Secretary, when you say that we shouldn't listen to rumors, these are things coming from reporters who have not only covered many, many other hurricanes, they've covered wars and refugee camps. I mean, these aren't rumors. They're seeing thousands of people there.

CHERTOFF: Well, I would be - I say, I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don't have food and water.

NEWKIRK: The director of FEMA, Michael Brown, also said in multiple interviews that he'd just found out about the situation at the convention center that day. In the next segment, NPR interviewed reporter John Burnett, who was at the convention center and saw everything.


JOHN BURNETT: Let me clarify for the secretary and for everyone else what myself and Anne Hawke just drove away from three blocks from here in the Ernest Morial Convention Center. There are, I estimate, 2,000 people living like animals inside the city convention center and around it. They've been there since the hurricane. There's no food. There's absolutely no water. There's no medical treatment. There's no police and no security. And there are...

NEWKIRK: Just after that, Chertoff’s folks called back.


SIEGEL: Secretary Chertoff’s spokeswoman called to say that after our interview with the secretary of Homeland Security, he received a report confirming the situation at the convention center, and he says the department is working tirelessly to get food and supplies to those in need and also to save lives.


NEWKIRK: For his part, the president still hadn't been to New Orleans, but he came close.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #36: People still in New Orleans, if they looked to the skies this morning, saw Air Force One. The president flying over for a personal look at the devastation. His plane...

NEWKIRK: You know, it's kind of an absurd moment when you think about it. The president had cut his vacation in Texas short to respond. He had to do something, and the White House settled on flying Air Force One really low over the Gulf Coast, taking a couple of photos of him looking pensive out the window, and then putting on a press conference back in D.C.


GEORGE W BUSH: As we flew here today, I also asked the pilot to fly over the Gulf Coast region so I could see firsthand the scope and magnitude of the devastation.

NEWKIRK: Bush's flyover wasn't exactly good PR, and then it got worse. On Friday, Bush flew to Mobile, Ala., and this time, he got out of the plane. He held a press conference on the state of the response, and he turned to the guy standing next to him, FEMA chief Michael Brown.


BUSH: Again, I want to thank you all for - and, Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director...

NEWKIRK: That was bad. And all this together - the slow government response, the media coverage, Bush's seeming indifference - it all added up. Alice Craft-Kearney will put it like this.

CRAFT-KEARNEY: I'll put it like this. As a person of color, you always have it in the back of your mind that the government really doesn't care about you. Katrina validated that. It cemented it for me. I felt like, you talk a good game about, oh, we love our people, you - we don't treat you any different. But I don't think that anybody would've wanted to trade places with me that day. To say, oh, we don't treat anybody any different - yes, you do. And we saw it loud and clear. It was played out that day. Some days I - you know, I don't like to think about it because I just get choked up.


NEWKIRK: The flyover, the rumors, the stereotypes about Black folks - for people who knew the history of being treated like second-class citizens, it was easy to find patterns.


KANYE WEST: I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a Black family, it says they're looting. If you see a white family, it says they're looking for food. And, you know, it's been five days because most of the people are Black. And even for me...

NEWKIRK: Yeah, Kanye West - the old Kanye. An NBC benefit telethon for Katrina held on Friday night, a frightened-looking Mike Myers is standing next to him as Kanye is clearly going off script. The end of this quote is a meme now, but really, if you listen to how he's describing what he's seeing, it's chilling.


WEST: With the setup - the way America is set up to help the poor, the Black people, the less well-off as slow as possible. I mean, this is - Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of the people that could help are at war right now fighting another way. And they've given them permission to go down and shoot us.

MIKE MYERS: And subtle but in even many...

NEWKIRK: It all might sound conspiratorial, but it was logical for lot of New Orleanians like Alice, lots of Black Americans, folks who had seen Jim Crow or heard the stories - Tuskegee, Tulsa, Wilmington. If you know all that, if you've seen all that, maybe a conspiracy is the most logical conclusion.


MYERS: The destruction of the spirit of the people of southern Louisiana and Mississippi may end up being the most tragic loss of all.

WEST: George Bush doesn't care about Black people.


NEWKIRK: In the end, a lot of what Kanye said would be vindicated. Even as he was speaking, all the rumor and fear started turning victims in the targets. The parallel universe had become real. It would manifest in a series of violent tragedies and a race to bury them under the floodwaters.


MERAJI: This episode was hosted by Vann R. Newkirk II. It was produced by Katherine Wells, Alvin Melathe, Katy Reckdahl and Kevin Townsend. Music was by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. Mix, sound design and additional music by David Herman. The entire series and full credits can be found at

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