The lie of the storm

Katrina, Ida, and resisting the “looting” myth

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeastern Louisiana. In New Orleans, dozens of levees and floodwalls failed, and water poured into the city, plunging 80 percent of it underwater. Tens of thousands of survivors waited for days for rescue—some in attics or on rooftops; others waded to higher ground, or to the Superdome in search of shelter and resources. Faced with a creepingly slow government response, residents collected basic necessities from pharmacies and grocery stores that were otherwise shuttered and out of business. 

Coverage, meanwhile, zeroed in on what many news outlets called “looting.” In what is probably the best-known example, an Associated Press photo—of a Black child wading through floodwater, groceries in hand—was accompanied by a caption identifying him as “looting a grocery store.” That image still circulates today, alongside a second image, from AFP/Getty, in which two white people are described as “finding bread and soda from a local grocery store”—a cautionary tale for journalists about racial profiling.

Hindsight has provided journalists with plenty more lessons. Vann Newkirk II, whose Floodlines podcast revisited Katrina coverage, noted that many journalists at the time “seemed especially interested in images of people taking TVs or Jordans,” and constructing moral binaries from them. “But the fixation on looting in the first place was a distraction,” Newkirk added. Russel Honoré, the lieutenant general who oversaw Joint Task Force Katrina, later told The Guardian that looting was “way over-reported.” He added, “People confused looting with people going into survival mode. It’ll happen to you and I if we were just as isolated.”

At the time, however, credulous coverage of “looting” contributed to what many have since described as a damaging feedback loop. Kathleen Blanco, then the governor, requested forty thousand National Guard troops to the city. She touted the troops at a press conference held days after the storm, calling specific attention to their M-16 rifles. “I have one message for these hoodlums,” she said. “These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.” (A CNN report that carried Blanco’s comments also noted that “police were stopping anyone they saw on the street and warning them that they were not safe from armed bands of young men who were attacking people and attempting to rape women.”) 

A police captain told officers they could shoot looters; ultimately, police shot a number of people in the days following the storm, killing several of them. Years later, Blanco said the media had amplified stories officials couldn’t verify, and that any “rampant violence that was reported was definitely out of proportion to the reality.” A former New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter told The Lens, a nonprofit newsroom, that many of the inflammatory details that featured in post-Katrina coverage stemmed from “people who would ordinarily be considered reliable sources,” including the mayor and the police superintendent. 

News outlets had sixteen years, to the day, to consider the consequences of sensational coverage that emphasized looting beyond the realities on the ground. Then Hurricane Ida hit, and news outlets, drawing once more on official sources, pushed “looting” back into their headlines. Two decades of debunking myths post-Katrina was seemingly for naught. 

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Late in the evening on Sunday, August 29, after Hurricane Ida knocked out power in New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Police Chief Shaun Ferguson appeared together in a Facebook video, during which Ferguson said the city would “implement our anti-looting deployment to ensure the safety of our citizens, the safety of our citizens’ property.” The next day, during a joint briefing, Ferguson said the city had made several arrests for looting, which he said would “not be tolerated,” adding, “This is not the time to take opportunities of our vulnerable population right now. We all are vulnerable at this point in time.” Cantrell said that “there is no widespread looting,” then, seconds later, said her directive was to “lock ’em up.” The city’s 911 system was down for hours, during which the New Orleans Police Department, via its Twitter account, mentioned anti-looting teams again, and encouraged people in the city to “say something when you see something”—including by flagging down police officers or going to the nearest fire station to make a report. 

On Tuesday, during another joint briefing, Cantrell mentioned that a National Guard deployment would supplement the city’s anti-looting effort. Cantrell also issued an executive order enacting a curfew from 8pm to 6am, which she called a “proactive” measure. Ferguson said the city police had made “several arrests” related to looting, but would not provide a number—a decision made, he said, to prevent “a false narrative about this city.” 

Yet despite the concerns about incidence and false narratives, many newsrooms nevertheless emphasized “looting” in their coverage. In the days following Ida, local and national outlets published headlines that splashed Ferguson’s vague “several arrests” comment but offered no additional context or pushback; Cantrell’s “lock ’em up” comment framed coverage from the New York Post. A story from WGNO, a Nexstar-owned New Orleans TV news station, announced the activation of “anti-looting teams” in its headline, and referred in its text to a “crime spree.” Multiple outlets seized on drone footage posted by a weather chaser on Twitter who identified the video’s subjects as “looters” in a caption. A CBS News reporter shared photos from outside of a Dollar General with the hashtag “#lootingalert”; the images, referenced in some coverage, included a shopping cart filled with frozen food and bottled water. A photo-essay from the Times-Picayune included an image of two men in handcuffs “after being caught looting,” the caption read.

When the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office began releasing looting-arrest numbers, several outlets ran the figures in their coverage. But reporting arrest numbers can mask complicated realities and give credence, rather than skepticism, to official narratives. Court Watch nola, a nonprofit criminal justice watchdog, has provided updates on some of those people arrested on looting charges, noting several instances during initial court appearances when a commissioner in local magistrate court found “no probable cause,” or no allegations of stealing anything

Susi Q. Beck, a New Orleans resident who coordinated mutual-aid efforts in the wake of the storm, wrote on Facebook that a Times-Picayune/Advocate reporter contacted them for a story “on ‘looting’ in the aftermath of the storm, and why providing basic resources is so necessary to stop looting.” In their Facebook post, and in their subsequent comments to the reporter, Beck took exception to the “looting” emphasis. “Looting isn’t the problem. Hoarding is the problem,” Beck told the reporter, adding: “When you’re in crisis and instability, you have the experience of feast or famine. Our whole system is in crisis. Corporations are hoarding resources and creating famine in communities.” (In an interview with CJR after their Facebook post, Beck said they’d heard from mutual-aid volunteers who described National Guard members imposing stricter rations when handing out ice to people, citing the possibility that they might be targeted for robbery. “That’s just gaslighting,” they added. “It’s the gaslighting of capitalism.”)

But there’s a perceivable tension between the story itself, which ran under the headline “Looting reports spike in the city after Hurricane Ida, 911 call data shows,” and Beck’s comments, which challenge that frame. The story emphasizes an increase in calls reporting “business and residential burglaries”; it opens with the account of a beauty-supply store owner who’d been robbed three times during the storm, and ends with his exasperation, and the possibility that he might leave New Orleans. 

Missy Wilkinson, the author of the “looting reports” story, is from Louisiana, and lived through Katrina in 2005. The racist coverage that immediately followed that storm is “really vivid in my mind still,” she said in an interview. Wilkinson said she reported on 911 call data to provide a “fairly objective depiction” of what residents were reporting in real time, and spoke with Beck in order to provide information about the fundamental human needs the storm emphasized. 

In the wake of a major hurricane, reporters must often move incredibly fast to get necessary information about resources, aid, evacuations, and more to the public. And in today’s gutted media landscape, there are fewer people available to manage pressing coverage; in the years since Katrina, tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. (Their numbers include the staff of the Times-Picayune, which was laid off after The Advocate purchased it in 2019.) However, certain duties around fact-finding persist; they include pressuring public officials for information, not just transcribing their decisions, and providing information in context. 

Wilkinson’s story about looting reports published nearly two weeks after the storm hit, when the city was still very deep in the aftermath and early in its recovery efforts. At the time, she said, her paper didn’t have the bandwidth for examining how looting cases had held up in court. More than two months later, it still hasn’t explored the issue—though Wilkinson didn’t rule out the possibility, which she called “a great idea for continuing coverage.” 

More reporters—especially those who cover the criminal-legal system—need to accept that cops lie, and that using them as the sole source in stories presents a problem, particularly for communities of color that have heightened contact with law enforcement. This approach to sourcing is widely considered to be unacceptable for any other kind of story. Not enough reporters openly questioned whether anti-looting squads were the best use of resources during a crisis, or whether they were even effective at stemming robberies. Without those questions, reporters risk telling stories that validate expanded police details and actions. 

“The news isn’t going to report that we’re having a system collapse—and that, in the system of capitalism, private property is more important than people,” Beck told me. But maybe we should.

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Ko Bragg is an editor at Scalawag Magazine. She is based in New Orleans, but considers Mississippi home.

TOP IMAGE: A man sits on sandbags placed to protect a business from the effects of Hurricane Ida, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in downtown New Orleans. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)