After five days managing near-riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Following days of internationally reported killings, rapes and gang violence inside the Dome, the doctor from FEMA - Beron doesn't remember his name - came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.
"I've got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome," Beron recalls the doctor saying.
The real total was six, Beron said.
Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped to his death in an apparent suicide, said Beron, who personally oversaw the turning over of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop melting bags of ice. State health department officials in charge of body recovery put the official death count at the Dome at 10, but Beron said the other four bodies were found in the street near the Dome, not inside it. Both sources said no one had been killed inside.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said authorities had confirmed only four murders in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina - making it a typical week in a city that anticipated more than 200 homicides this year. Jordan expressed outrage at reports from many national media outlets that suffering flood victims had turned into mobs of unchecked savages.
"I had the impression that at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred at the two sites," he said. "It's unfortunate we saw these kinds of stories saying crime had taken place on a massive scale when that wasn't the case. And they (national media outlets) have done nothing to follow up on any of these cases, they just accepted what people (on the street) told them. ... It's not consistent with the highest standards of journalism."
As floodwaters forced tens of thousands of evacuees into the Dome and Convention Center, news of unspeakable acts poured out of the nation's media: evacuees firing at helicopters trying to save them; women, children and even babies raped with abandon; people killed for food and water; a 7-year-old raped and killed at the Convention Center. Police, according to their chief, Eddie Compass, found themselves in multiple shootouts inside both shelters, and were forced to race toward muzzle flashes through the dark to disarm the criminals; snipers supposedly fired at doctors and soldiers from downtown high-rises.
In interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Compass reported rapes of "babies," and Mayor Ray Nagin spoke of "hundreds of armed gang members" killing and raping people inside the Dome. Unidentified evacuees told of children stepping over so many bodies, "we couldn't count."
The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them. Nagin told Winfrey the crowd has descended to an "almost animalistic state."
Four weeks after the storm, few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The piles of bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines say that although anarchy reigned at times and people suffered unimaginable indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened.
The fact is, while it was no picnic in there, it wasn't Mad Max at Thunderdome either, and the press has done nothing in the aftermath of the storm to dispel the notion that society had completely broken down in the Superdome and Convention Center. It was very sloppy and irresponsible reporting.
It didn't help to have a hysterical mayor repeating and embellishing every rumor. His "10,000 bodies" comments have certainly been debunked now that the death toll still stands around 600 and most of the city has been searched.
Was it just the mayor's panic in the heat of the moment, or an effort to drum up sympathy and support while turning the focus of blame on somebody else? It's hard to tell, but certainly the press was more than ready to report these claims without applying much critical thought to the possibility that the numbers and events were wildly exaggerated.