The New Orleans police chief during Hurricane Katrina, Eddie Compass, says he unnecessarily "heightened people's fears" by repeating unconfirmed reports of out-of-control crime in the city during the aftermath of the storm, adding to the confusion caused by the disaster and potentially hampering rescue efforts.
"There were reports of rapes and children being raped. And I even got one report … that my daughter was raped," Mr. Compass says in the Spike Lee documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," scheduled to air on HBO tonight.
Mr. Compass resigned from his post as New Orleans police superintendent in September 2005.
"In hindsight, I guess I heightened people's fears by me being the superintendent of police, reporting these things that were reported to me," Mr. Compass said of the unverified accounts of crime and disorder in flooded New Orleans that he repeated to the press and on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
"But there was really no way for me to check definitively. So instead I erred on the side of caution. I didn't want people to think we were trying to cover anything up. So I repeated these things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems," he said.
Officials and local commentators have long suggested that the false reports of rampant crime following the hurricane were a reason for the slowness of rescue efforts. With recovery teams and humanitarian aid groups frightened to enter the city, many storm survivors were left stranded on roofs without food and water, in makeshift rafts, and in filthy conditions at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
In part due to the trumped-up crime reports, officials in a neighboring town — fearing the chaos would spread — responded by ordering police to shoot any evacuee who attempted to cross the Crescent City Connection bridge into the city of Gretna from New Orleans.
"I'm going to tell you that during that storm, the national media reported rampant rumors that have now turned out not to be true. … And people were terrified," Louisiana's lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu, says in the film.
"In my estimation, that Gretna thing was a way overreaction to rampant rumors that were being pushed in the mainstream media," he adds.
"What Eddie [Compass] was trying to do was tell the truth … because nobody trusted police. His view was: ‘I'll tell you everything you want to hear.' Unfortunately, he was spreading rumors … hundreds of helicopters being shot at by looters and babies being raped in the Superdome," a professor of history at Tulane University, Douglas Brinkley, says in the film.
Katrina is estimated to have resulted in 1,810 deaths, according to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, with about 1,464 of those fatalities in Louisiana. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates the storm caused more than $80 billion in property damage.
The first two hour-long parts of the four-part documentary will air tonight at 9 p.m. and will focus on the stories of New Orleans residents who survived the storm.