Katrina whipped up a full-blown, Category 5 typhoon of urban legends, apocryphal rumors and, in some cases, shocking true stories that covered more ground in a shorter time than the killer hurricane herself.
Did workers find unexploded terrorist bombs hidden in New Orleans levees? (False.)
Are sharks circling in flooded city streets? (Technically true; one three-foot shark was spotted by city officials.)
Did city officials dynamite some levees in a vain attempt to save the French Quarter by flooding other areas? (False.)
Are hackers trying to install insidious viruses and steal your money by pretending to be storm-relief organizations who’ll accept donations at a Web site? (Just to be safe, assume it’s true.)
Rumors circulate like houseflies at normal times, but they flock around major disasters like a thousand vultures in search of fresh carrion.
"Rumors tend to arise as people try to regain a sense of control in a world gone awry," says David Mikkelson, founder of Snopes.com, the Web’s premier myth-busting site. "To blame a terrorist’s bomb (for breaking a levee) would say it was a man’s actions — something controllable — and not unpredictable nature, which we can’t control."
Rumors erupt in predictable patterns after such disasters as Katrina, Sept. 11 or the Asian tsunami, Mikkelson says.
"If things play out as in the past, we’ll soon see the pattern of stories like miraculous rescues, people spared a terrible fate because of some expression of faith," he says. "I expect we’ll soon see a story or two about people rescued by the spontaneous efforts of animals."
Why do people traffic in rumors?
"Rumors have a social or communal function," Mikkelson says. "It’s not for entertainment’s sake. Rumor is largely about what might affect me. Here, you have a disaster where thousands might be dead and many more homeless, and what’s on everyone’s mind is how much gasoline is going to cost — and why."
And rumors sometimes have a reassuring quality, even if the story is perverse.
"As with the story about terrorist bombs in the levees, there’s an element of reassurance we have more control of events," Mikkelson says. "It says: ‘We may have been flooded but at least we thwarted the terrorists.’"
Here are some of the many Katrina-related rumors circulating among evacuees:
Rumor #1: At least 70 rapes were committed in the Louisiana Superdome during the hurricane and aftermath.
Unconfirmed. A New York Times reporter on the scene reported Thursday that the Superdome’s restive refugees endured dank, dark and putrid conditions in the "sweltering and surreal vault" that sometimes seemed more like a prison than a sanctuary.
Rape rumors spread among the evacuees, but authorities can’t yet prove any one of them happened, much less 70.
"And the dome’s reluctant residents exchanged horror stories," the Times reporter wrote, "including reports, which could not be confirmed by the authorities, of a suicide and of rapes."
Rumor #2: Coroners are conducting autopsies in Pascagoula, Miss., parking lots because the only available light is from the sun.
True. Jackson County (Miss.) Coroner Vicki Broadus and a forensic pathologist are examining the dead under primitive conditions, with no water, power or proper facilities for their grisly task, the Associated Press reported Thursday. Crews are driving around coastal Mississippi, picking up bodies left on sidewalks like garbage and depositing them in refrigerated mobile morgues.
Broadus said most of the victims drowned or suffered severe injuries when buildings collapsed around them. Their faces have been distorted from the water or the rubble and they have started to decompose. Their identification and clothes were swept away, and many bodies had drifted miles from home.
"We are looking for any scars, tattoos, dental work. I’m doing DNA, fingerprinting and photos," she said Thursday. "It’s not easy. … These people really are not identifiable right now."
It will be at least a week and maybe longer before any funerals are conducted, Heritage manager James V. Miller told the AP.
"If we could get power, if we could get phone service, we could serve the families we have waiting," he said. "Then you have to be able to coordinate with cemeteries, casket suppliers and vault companies."
Rumor #3: An epidemic of lawlessness – looting, carjackings, shootings, kidnappings, muggings and more — has spread from New Orleans to surrounding communities.
False. Yes, somebody said a biker gang had gathered stolen guns in New Orleans and headed toward the Texas state line.
Yes, in Lafayette, people gossiped about an armed robbery at a grocery store. A short time later, the robbery was rumored to be a murder. Other rumors involved imaginary crimes at Hooters, Wal-Mart and private homes.
Yes, in Gonzales, a whole mall had supposedly been looted.
None of it is true.
"They are not hijacking cars, there are no machine guns, they are not raiding Wal-Mart," said an aide to Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden. "The rumors have gotten worse today."
But that hasn’t stopped frightened citizens from arming themselves. Lafayette’s Academy sporting goods store sold nearly 60 guns in three hours Thursday; Lafayette Shooters reported 1,000 inquiries within two hours and quickly sold out of firearms.
Rumor #4: Gas shortages are a ploy by President Bush/oil companies/Arabs to force prices over $5 a gallon and make money.
False. Katrina shut down two major pipelines carrying gasoline from the Gulf Coast to East Coast states, plus eight refineries that turn crude oil into fuel, the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and other papers are reporting. None are expected to resume operation until damages are repaired and electrical power is resumed. That has caused prices to increase across the nation and could lead to shortages if the pipelines are not brought back on-line quickly.
"Higher gasoline prices, at least in the short-term, are an inevitable effect of the supply disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina," myth-debunking Snopes.com reported this week, "but whether they will hit the upper end of the $4 to $5 per gallon range and how long they might stay there is speculative."
Bloomberg News Service reports the national average retail price of gasoline might rise to $3.22 a gallon, although some analysts forecast short-term prices at $4 per gallon.
A bigger reason for high prices is … panicky motorists who believe rumors and fuel gas-buying frenzies.
Rumor #5: Katrina hit New Orleans on "Southern Decadence Day" when 100,000 homosexuals would gather to commit unspeakable acts in public.
Matters of faith defy "true" or "false," but a little logic is a good thing.
It’s true that Michael Marcavage, director of a fundamentalist Christian group named Repent America, claimed Katrina was an "act of God" punishing the "wicked city" of New Orleans by hitting just days before Southern Decadence Day, a gay celebration.
The "Gay Mardi Gras," as it’s sometimes called, was scheduled to open last Wednesday, so many of the revelers were probably not yet in town, suggests About.com’s urban-legends expert David Emery.
"Southern Decadence is a 35-year-old tradition in New Orleans," Emery says. "Why did God choose to wait till 2005 to ‘punish’ the city for it? Why is the French Quarter, the district where the event (now canceled) was to be held, one of the least devastated parts of the city so far?
"And if this tragedy occurred because God is angry at New Orleans," Emery continues, "what was the point of the awful devastation and loss of life wrought in Mississippi and Alabama?"