The stories that circulated in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina depicted New Orleans as a hell on earth.

Gangs of thugs prowled the Superdome and convention center -- raping, killing and pillaging at will. Sharks cruised the flooded streets, their predatory impulses lured by the blood in the water.

Make no mistake, Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, killing people and causing astronomical property damage. Local volunteers who traveled to Louisiana and Mississippi confirmed how badly residents in those states were hurting. There was a wide gulf, however, between the truth and the hysterical reporting from the Superdome and New Orleans. Wild stories were repeated by public officials, then carried by numerous news organizations.

A month later, police who examined the reports found the wild stories to be just that -- wild stories. They have no official reports of rape and no eyewitnesses to sexual assaults. The hundreds of people who died at the Superdome and convention center turned out to be 14 total, with only two classified as murder victims. One of those people apparently died somewhere else and was brought to the stadium.

Everyone should be thankful that the loss of life in New Orleans was not worse. The exaggerated stories, many of which were reported without attribution, did not help relief efforts. Unarmed rescue personnel, including FEMA personnel, were wary about stepping into the stadium without armed backup for fear of making bad situations worse. We also wonder if the national media would have been as quick to believe that cannibalism and widespread rape were occurring in upscale suburban neighborhoods.

New Orleans was a chaotic place. Unfortunately, those whose job it is to record the news added another layer of trouble to the mix.

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