Katrina: The Urban Legends Begin: A Memoir with Commentary

By Frank de Caro


We leave New Orleans on Saturday, August 27, before the big rush of people out, well before the deadly rush of water in. We return to New Orleans November 10, after over two months away, stretched in various places between Baton Rouge and Oklahoma City and New York, and, naturally, the stories begin to flow, because stories provide order, sequencing the flood of chaos into smaller, more contained meanings.

When we return, our house in the Garden District appears to be largely undamaged, though the goldfish have mysteriously disappeared completely from our pond and the yard is full of layers of debris. A lot of it seems to consist of magnolia leaves, as though the Old South veneer of the neighborhood has been carefully and deliberately dripped all over us, landing symbolically at our feet in a mass of postmodernity. Then at one point we begin to smell gas in the front and finally realize that the smell is coming from our lantern on a post that always gave off an odd light, sort of like a super-magnified bug zapper. We thought it was a strange sort of electric light, installed by the previous owner of the house for unknown reasons. We realize now that it's a gas light fitted with some sort of device that emitted not a flame but this odd, bug zapper glow. We have no idea how to relight it and in fact realize that, hapless householders that we are, we have no idea even how to turn off the gas. Obviously we need expert advice (not always easy to come by; in the post-Katrina days experts are often in short supply) and that takes us to the Yellow Pages and ultimately to a shop in the French Quarter which has been making decorative gas lamps (most far more decorative than ours, a somewhat pedestrian black metal affair that looks like it was ordered out of a catalog) since 1945. And that is how we happen to have come to the place where we hear our first Katrina-spawned urban legend.

The proprietor of the shop is a young man in his thirties, son of the late founder of the business. The shop itself is a spacious but simple affair with bare brick walls and an air of having survived from an earlier time into our current Vieux Carré era of tee-shirt shops and galleries of souvenir art. There are a few display cases and sample lanterns hung on walls. The proprietor tells us that our lamp is fitted with something called a mantle which creates the sort of glow we had, increasing the amount of light emitted. However, he can sell us, if we prefer, the more standard fitting that can turn it back into a gas light, as conventionally conceived, so that out lamp will emit the flickering flame that is more romantic and more decorative. This appeals to us (we do, after all, live in one of the neighborhoods where Olde New Orleans is most avidly evoked for tourists and locals alike). We buy the fitting, eventually install it ourselves, and even learn how to turn off the gas, but that's another story, far less interesting than the one the proprietor tells us.

In the post-Katrina moment there is an impulse to talk, to exchange war stories, to say where one has been, when one came back to the city, what one found. The proprietor tells us, among other things, that his wife is still in Houston with their child and is very reluctant to come back to New Orleans. She has taken a regular job there without his "permission" (which we take to mean without discussing it with him or against his wishes). He is concerned about getting his business back up and running, something which would presumably smooth the way for his family's return. And he asks who we are and what we do and we say we're folklorists. That's an answer that often stirs uneasy interest and we talk a little about folklore. He has a Katrina story, he says. He is aware that it falls into the realm of folklore and he may mean to be commenting on the gullibility of those who believe such stories.

It seems that in the Superdome, in the aftermath of the storm and flood, gang violence broke out as gang members reunited within the Dome. But to stem this tide President Bush sent into the place the Secret Service who "executed" all the gangsters. Then, to cover it all up, they were listed in death as just more "drowning victims."

We aren't doing fieldwork, we're just trying to get our front-yard lamp up and running. We don't probe too much about further details or what he thinks about the story. Yet it's not hard to immediately see possible meanings emerge within the narrative. New Orleanians have been burdened with belief in a drastically high crime rate for a number of years. Indeed, local newspaper obituary columns do seem to have been remarkably full of death notices for young people shot down and news stories remind a local audience of the same grim reality. Gangs have been on our minds, so it's hardly surprising that they should emerge into our narratives, another worry in the midst of our worries about the disaster that has just happened.

A few days later we have gone to have lunch with a visiting Baton Rouge friend at the Savvy Gourmet on Magazine Street just uptown from Napoleon. That lunch is being served here at all is a Katrina consequence. This establishment was in the process of opening just as Katrina approached, opening as an emporium for cookware/a cooking school/a catering business. After their return following Katrina, the owners have decided that there's a need for more eating places in the city and they begin offering lunch. Its look is high tech, gleaming with polished woods and metals, a sort of tube of modernity inserted into what was an old warehouse or garage; a large plasma TV plays the Cooking Channel over on one side of the shop.

This day we run into friends already having lunch here, a married couple who lived in Lakeview, an area of the city hit especially hard by the flooding from the 17th Street and London Avenue canals. Their lovely house (she is a decorator by profession) has been virtually destroyed by flood waters and a falling tree. Then what was left of their house was looted. The houses of their grown children, also in Lakeview, have been destroyed. They don't know whether their businesses can survive in the current economic climate and may have to leave New Orleans, where their families have lived for generations. They are remarkably cheerful and we join them to chat over food. They also have a story, about something which happened to friends of a friend.

These friends of a friend returned to their house in Lakeview to find it looted. Their silverware and the wife's jewelry were just gone. Then after the mucky water was pumped out of their swimming pool, they recovered their lost treasures. They were in a sack at the bottom of the pool, and the looter who took them was still attached, clutching the bag in his dead hand. Evidently he had been making his way with the loot through the world of water that covered everything, was unaware of the existence of the pool, plunged into its depths when he reached the edge; unable to swim, he drowned and stayed under water, held down by the bag of silver and gems he couldn't let go of.

Not long after our lunch we hear another version of the same story from another friend, an educator quite aware of urban legends who has been flooded out of his own house and is staying in the suburbs in a borrowed residence. In this version (told to him by a friend) the story is essentially the same but the location is Uptown, the dead looter has taken a pillowcase from the house for the loot, and the looter is specifically noted to be a black man. (The New York Times quotes TV star turned vocal French Quarter saloon keeper Harry Anderson as saying "with disgust" that many of the white people who have come to makeshift town-hall meetings held initially at his bar probably hope that blacks will not return to the city in appreciable numbers; they say "There's a lot less crime now that the black people are gone" (Schwartz 2006:A21); indeed some whites viewed New Orleans crime as a black problem, but with this exception the race of the looters and gang members was not mentioned in any of the stories.)

We have the story happening to a friend of a friend, we have a plot where faint possibility vies with improbability, elements that would mark it as urban legend even if the story didn't echo the themes of other such narratives: the dangers that invade our personal places, the ironic justice that catches up with those who do wrong.

Then we are on our way to dinner in the Quarter with other friends whose Uptown apartment has flooded but who have a house in Baton Rouge; they are living there, where both in fact work, and coming into the Crescent City periodically. Did we hear about the looters who broke into an old lady's apartment while she was home? Noticing that she had nothing worth stealing, in fact virtually nothing at all, they went back out, stole a plasma TV, and brought it back and gave it to her!

Finally, much later, our educator friend puts me in touch by telephone with the friend who told him the story of the looter in the pool. This man is in town working for a big clean-up and restoration company, an outfit that got into town early and has people working all over who hear lots of things. As for the looter in the pool, he just adds that the man dashed out the back door carrying "something heavy" and plunged into the water. But he has a lot to add to the story of the eliminated gangs. He says that 350 armed gang members were shot in New Orleans, that when news people were busy looking into stories in one part of town, Special Forces would slip into other areas and kill gangsters. At the Superdome people congregated by neighborhoods but when evacuated were purposefully split up on to many different buses so they wouldn't notice who was missing. He says that a friend of his who works in a retail establishment talked to someone from the Coroner's office who came into the store who said that "a hell of a lot of people drowned by being shot" and that no investigations were made into any deaths during Katrina.

That all of these stories have to with crime is probably not surprising. Nationally, a number of urban legends deal with crime and criminals, and it might well be argued that many urban legends in general function to warn us of the dangers that can befall us in the modern or postmodern world (much as American ballads once warned of the nearness of sudden death—in the mine, on the railroad, on the logging drive). Crime is one such danger and fear of it is expressed in other genres as well (in fact when we go to buy a new hall rug, the proprietor of that shop tells us his personal narrative of his business being looted: they left his huge inventory of valuable carpets untouched but stole a picture of Jesus among other small items). But, as was noted above, crime has weighed especially heavily on the New Orleans consciousness in recent years. The whole nation has been aware of high murder rates for the city, and drug violence has been blamed particularly for waves of maim. Then following Katrina, news stories of widespread looting and of great violence and disorder in the Superdome (an iconic building and an official evacuation center) and the Morial Convention Center (a more makeshift haven for those caught in the city by the disaster) rocked the news media and their audience. News stories, in part fueled by rumors, claimed that New Orleans gangs had shifted to Atlanta and that Houston's crime rate was skyrocketing as New Orleans criminals settled in there (see Lee 2006).

As New Orleanians returned home many began to complain that their houses had been not only devastated by natural forces but by looting as well, although police verification of this was ambivalent. A special code was devised for police reports of such looting, 21K. The K stood for Katrina and the 21 meant "lost or stolen." It indicated that the police felt they could not be certain whether objects had been looted or simply lost in the destruction. "The chaotic landscape made it difficult to separate legitimate looting complaints from storm losses and, to a lesser extent, false insurance claims," according to one report (Perlstein 2006: A1). How much looting actually took place was difficult to actually determine, and of course the early reports of dreadful violence in Superdome and Convention Center were later claimed to have been wildly exaggerated.

But belief in the early lawlessness and in the widespread prevalence of looters ("Looters will be shot" or just "Looters shot" were bits of graffiti still in evidence months later) does not depend on verification, and it has been noted that belief in high crime rates and fear of crime may exist beyond all reality of crime (though in New Orleans crime was certainly a serious, real problem). Clearly the urban legends express that belief and that fear carried over into the Hurricane Katrina context, a context in which people felt overwhelmed to begin with. The gangs that marked life pre-Katrina thus show up in the context of the Superdome chaos. The looting reported by the media (and, indeed, no doubt experienced by some people whatever the police codes may suggest and though to folklorists what "really happened" may be largely irrelevant) becomes central to narrative. The legends can be seen as a statement about the criminals that threaten us. On top of the crushing disaster of storm and flood, crime is still another powerful, tormenting force in our urban lives, as gangs form anew and looters pillage our cherished possessions. (One French Quarter tee-shirt proclaims: "I went to New Orleans and all I got was this lousy tee shirt, a new Cadillac and a plasma TV," echoing both an older shirt inscription and prominent reports of items particularly popular with looters, including, supposedly, police officers who stole expensive cars.)

Yet these stories have another element as well, and perhaps they offer more needed hope than dispiriting despair in the face of great collective tragedy. The looter perishes in his looting, slips into the pool because the flood has literally muddied terrain he does not know in the first place. The natural disaster itself brings destruction and looting but also punishes his evil deed, putting him in his proper place. The lost possessions are not even really lost. The Superdome gang members conveniently gather themselves in a neatly confined space so the Secret Service can pick them off. Or the Special Forces fan out to do the same when the media is conveniently not looking. Because the gangsters are listed as drowning victims, the natural disaster, in a sense, punishes them too for their evil, or at least makes it easier for the forces of justice to do the deed and cover their own tracks. Katrina has actually made it possible for gang violence to be eliminated. But of course the final story even tells us that not all looters are completely evil. Some must have a Robin Hood streak. When some of them perceive that a potential victim has nothing, they go out, steal from the rich, and render their loot unto the poor.

All of this suggests that, however much these stories recognize the problem of crime, they more so emphasize hope and a kind of redemption (not of the criminals but for the law-abiding rest of us). The looter is thwarted by his grim plunge into the pool and is eliminated forever. The gang members are likewise done away with and so, presumably, is their reign of terror in New Orleans communities. If their elimination is grim and even a bit sinister, the means by which it was accomplished (by the Secret Service dispatched by the President himself or by Special Forces from the United States military establishment) suggests, in the wake of a terrible tragedy that has not only overcome the city but which has caused many New Orleanians to feel abandoned by a national government, a further note of hope. Though our national government failed the victims of Katrina in many ways (failures exposed rather spectacularly in the national media), nonetheless it has done something positive here, crushed the local gang bangers. The President has not been as indifferent to New Orleans as some have charged; the city is not as alone as some have feared; the message is, over all, reassuring. And even though looters, most of them, may have escaped the terrible retribution of the lurking swimming pool, some weren't so bad, after all. Some were Robin Hood-like and gave plasma TVs to the poor, an act which takes the edge off—with a note of bemusement, perhaps—the terrors of an uncontrollable crime spree.

This is to say that the legends display a kind of balance. There is a recognition of the local crime problem and our fear of it even in the midst of the greater problem of terrible, widespread physical destruction. But there is also a note of hope that the worst crime is behind us: some looters must have perished, the Secret Service has (indeed secretly) disposed of the gangs. Those criminals who may be left may at least be Robin Hoods at heart. Katrina has not been all bad. Planners and visionaries were already suggesting that Katrina might have been that blessing in disguise, an event precipitating new, more positive directions for the city. In almost evangelical language, one candidate for City Council declares that "As devastating as the Hurricane was, it has washed us clean of our former political sins and given us a unique opportunity" (Landry 2006). The narratives re-enforce such possibilities of redemption and new beginnings, though they do so as an extension of an earlier discourse on the threat of local crime. Though such a vision may be little more than wishful thinking about escaping the past, narratives do often function to frame pictures of what we wish to be and may even influence what comes to be.

Of course that does not address what may be the most significant urban legend of all, one which we encountered only through media reports of it: namely, that the levees that had protected the Lower Ninth Ward were in fact deliberately dynamited to drive out the African-American residents of that area, the perpetrators probably being the white economic elite of the city. There were reports that people actually heard the explosions (attributed by those who debunked the story to the explosive sound of the levees breaking and of a huge barge plunging through the breach). The story echoes actual events during the great flood of 1927, when levees below New Orleans were deliberately blown up to relieve the pressure of the Mississippi River that was building upstream and threatening the city. It also reflects African-American feelings that minority white New Orleans would as soon be rid of them and that wealthy white developers covet their land, which could be re-developed for upscale clientele. Indeed, the predominantly black St. Thomas housing project, near the Garden District, had already been torn down, its site re-developed, and developers were thought to be eyeing the Iberville project, so close to the valuable real estate of that other historic, tourist-oriented district, the French Quarter.

All of the other stories noted here we heard from white informants, while the dynamiting story seems to come out of the African-American community. The rumors and legends told by whites and blacks in modern America are often quite divergent, as Patricia Turner and Gary Alan Fine have argued in several places (Turner 1993; Fine and Turner 2001). Given the very limited sampling of stories noted here, it would be rash to declare that the crime legends are "white" and the dynamiting story is "black." But if the crime legends offer a vision of hope, that vision may be that of a white population that has more resources to rebound from the Katrina tragedy. The story of the dynamiting of the levees (an act which would of course be even more horrendously criminal than looting, but something not conceived of as "crime" in the most conventional meanings of the term) suggests a much darker vision. It suggests a terrible distrust and a terrible division of the New Orleans community which will make recovering from Katrina even more difficult.

Our gas lamp flickers romantically. Our new hall rug (hand-knotted in China) is quite handsome. The Savvy Gourmet continues to offer excellent lunches. But none of us here can keep from wondering about and worrying about the future of New Orleans. Those of us who are folklorists can't stop thinking about the what the narratives may be telling us about that future or at least our local visions of it.


Fine, Gary Alan, and Patricia Turner. 2001. Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Landry, Shane. 2006. Campaign flyer for City Council District B.

Lee, Trymaine. 2006. "Haven and Hell." New Orleans Times-Picayune February 12: A1, A20.

Perlstein, Michael. 2006. "Police Reports Conceal Looting." New Orleans Times-Picayune February 7: A1, A8.

Schwartz, John. 2006. "Next Trick: Bring Back the Magic." New York Times February 18: A15, A21.

Turner, Patricia. 1993. I Heard It through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Frank de Caro is Professor Emeritus of English at Louisiana State University. This article was originally published in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 16-17 in 2008.