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AFS Review: Essays

Some Legendary Takes on Hurricane Katrina

Wednesday, March 07, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: John Laudun

This essay is a redacted version of the first section of a much longer article that will appear in the Spring 2012  Journal of American Folklore. The Review Editors thank both Carl Lindahl and the JAF Editors for their willingness to allow the Review to publish this excerpt in advance of the Journal article. The editors and the author thought it would be interesting to post the first section of the essay, which poses a problem regarding legends, their reception, and their study that the JAF article attempts to address with specific methods and proposed solutions, in hopes of expanding the possibilities for dialogue within and across our Society.

by Carl Lindahl --

How often does some strange truth find you where you live and in its fierce innocence unknowingly dismantle yours? Judi Rice of San Antonio was one of thousands of Texans who answered the call of conscience in September 2005 and opened their doors to New Orleanians uprooted by Hurricane Katrina. Judi’s stranger was Ruby, a middle-aged woman who had been plucked from her island house and floated to an overpass where she went for two days without food in blazing heat and slept for two nights on ant-infested pavement—all of which was mere prologue to the inferno of the Superdome.

Five days after the fact, and more than 500 miles from the New Orleans, Ruby went on to describe the events of Friday, September 2, 2005, when uniformed troops finally reached her: they "put up barricades around us and we stood in the sun as the National Guard walked past us into the Superdome. Next they made us go back into the Dome. None of the guards smiled or looked friendly, and they were all armed with their guns pointed down. When we went back into the Dome, that was covered with trash, excrement and dead bodies, they made us all lie on the floor face down like criminals. They threw bedding, MRE’s, water – and then left us there” (Rice 2005).

Listening to Ruby, Judi instantly recalled that she too had witnessed this same scene, but in her own home, on television, from a profoundly different angle: "This is what we saw from the media helicopters. Bush lands in Louisiana. Immediately after he departed for another area, you could see a Humvee, followed by huge military trucks loaded with supplies … and everyone watching this thought these people were to be rescued.” The cameras panned to a fleet of parked buses seemingly marshaled for an immediate evacuation. But, on the ground, Ruby and her fellow sufferers in the Dome got no solace from the soldiers, who returned to their trucks while the buses stood empty. Judi was shaken: "None of the public were aware of that. We were left with the orchestrated false impression that they were being rescued.”

As Ruby’s strange truth rent and remade Judi’s, numberless kitchen-table encounters between survivors and Samaritans throughout the country were exposing perceptual gulfs even in the act of erasing personal distance. People formerly secure in the visual evidence projected from their TV sets were now watching those same TV’s in the company of the survivors who had recently been pictured on the screens.

Far more often than being struck suddenly by an uninvited truth, we begin to hear the strangers in the room only when we see their truths through ours. The varied and opposed truths born in the midst of disaster will find their expression in legends: stories, told as true, that are accepted unconditionally as true by some, rejected flatly by others, and half believed, half doubted by others still. As folklorist Linda Dégh stresses, legend is by nature a debate about belief, an expression of our warring convictions concerning what is possible, what is probable, and what is just (see particularly Dégh 1973 and Dégh 2001: 311-18). I am also a folklorist, and I was not surprised by the range of conflicting truths that began to take on story-shape the instant that Katrina’s pinwheel clouds parted. The death of a city is the ultimate urban legend.

Nothing is more characteristic of legend than the movement from the vicarious to the visceral. Until you feel it, a legend is no more than another story, one that seldom sticks without first-person engagement. True, folklorists define legend as a third-person narrative, and tend to distinguish it sharply from a personal experience story. But, also by definition, legend engages belief, and belief is as personalizing a trait as a story can encompass. Whether we believe them or not, legends tend to affect us personally; they are made at least part true by the twinge of revulsion that hits us as we hear them. Those legends that identify human threats to our lives can become real by feeding on our fear of strangers. A white mother waiting for her young son outside the men’s room of an urban shopping mall hears screams and then sees two black men charge out the bathroom door; she runs inside and finds her child castrated (see, for example, Ridley 1967: 155-56; Dorson 1981: 228; Ellis 1982: 200-201; Ellis 2003: 227-28). A lonely girl swiftly courted by the stranger of her dreams is sent a package that, she believes, contains an engagement gift; unwrapping it in the presence of her parents, she finds a tiny coffin inscribed with the words, "Welcome to the world of AIDS” (Goldstein 1992). Whether such things ever really happened, something acutely real happens to many of those who listen.

When the visceral is discounted and legends are depersonalized, their study rapidly devolves into a game of True or False. It is conceivable to all of us that the urban legend of the customer who finds a dead rat at the bottom of her coke bottle (or deep-fried among the wings and thighs in her bucket of fast-food chicken) may have happened once, but folklorists who hear the same basic plot told a thousand times, each telling attached to a different locale and set of actors, sometimes grow to doubt the truth of all and slowly come to understand legends as stories that we know to be untrue, but which the naive teller does not.

In the 1920s, at the dawn of fieldwork-based legend studies, Friedrich Ranke made the gullibility of the folk a defining criterion of legend: "Folk legends are popular stories with fantastic, objectively untrue contents, told as factual event, in the form of a simple report” (Dégh 2001: 37, translating Ranke 1925: 14). In the past half-century, folklorists have progressively repudiated the old characterization. Fieldwork revealed that, although legends embrace belief as an issue, they are not told solely by believers; hence it is not only scholars who disbelieve them (Dégh 1971: 66-67; Georges 1971: 15-18). With this perception, grew its twin: we, as folklorists, do not have the capacity to define legends as objectively untrue for we are, as often as not, incapable of such determinations. By the dawn of the twenty-first century folklorists’ scholarly stance had entirely reversed the earlier formulations: today, "The truth of a story neither qualifies nor disqualifies it as a legend”; it is right to "call extranormal stories legends, whether they are objectively true or not” (Dégh 2001: 4).

Nevertheless, the old definition persists as the default position of the world at large: "Widespread coffee-table parlance based on a dated folkloristic definition identifies the legend as an objectively untrue story that is believed to be true” (Dégh 2001:4). And, largely because all human scientists still inhabit their own vernacular selves, folklorists from time to time continue to feed the vernacular perception that "legend” and "false story” are synonyms. Even as they assert the factual nature of some legends, even the finest folklorists rely on the old resonances: William A. Wilson’s major article, "Folklore and History: Fact amid the Legends” says it all; in this piece, Wilson argues cogently and persuasively for the objective truth of many legendary narratives at the very moment that his title contrasts "legend” with "fact” (Wilson 1973). Similarly, the title of Paul Smith’s "Contemporary Legend: A Legendary Genre?” (1989) plays upon the lay perception that legends are by nature false. Most famously, Jan H. Brunvand, whose bestselling books, newspaper columns, and talk show appearances made him the legend scholar with the greatest influence on twentieth-century media, used the older definitions to introduce the urban legend to mass audiences: "The storytellers assume that the true facts of each case lie just one or two informants down the line with a reliable witness,” but "urban legends are folklore, not history” (1980: xii-xiii), "true-sounding but utterly false stories that pass from person to person even in this modern day” (1986: 9). Brunvand’s close readings are more nuanced than these sample quotes suggest: for example, he also argues that "part of every legend is true” (1984: xii). Yet popularizers who build upon Brunvand tend to take the easiest, most reductionist route: websites like present these broadly circulating scare-stories and then purport to sift the facts from the baseless rumors.

Because popularizers have figured the legend as a false report, they cannot allow it to be accepted as an authentic personal experience. If the legend is essentially a lie, the only people who would report it as personal experience are either liars or lunatics. Our truth is news, theirs legend. Through this definition, a legend becomes in effect a joke on its teller, evidence of a naiveté that no enlightened person would share. We report the story that the abandoned citizens of New Orleans are shooting at helicopters—that is not legend, but news; but they are deluded by the legend—the lie—that the government intentionally dynamited the levees and left the Lower Ninth Ward a wasteland.

Just as Katrina survivors are marginalized by the construction of legend as lie, they are further distanced by having almost no voice in media representations of their disaster. In legend panics emerging from urban meltdowns, stories circulating about one group or another are summarily validated or discredited, depending on the identity of the actors. Rumors become fear’s messengers. This perception is not new; it’s been studied by, among others, historian Carl Smith, who in his book, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief, states, "the occurrences that people consider most disruptive are those which seem to offer the greatest challenge to their ideas of order.” We engage in a "struggle of imagination”— and I would add, a struggle of the heart—"to explain what is inexplicable, troubling, or threatening. The imagining of disorder” does not have to be accurate—and "is often most interesting and revealing when it is most obviously inaccurate” (Smith 1995: 6-7). The role of these imaginings is to create stories that enact and begin to account for events that defy our sense of justice and normalcy. Disaster legends may not report the facts, but they are our means of talking about the way we feel, and starting to find ways of making the event square with our convictions.

Smith’s book focuses on nineteenth-century disasters like the Chicago Fire of 1871. But his perceptions apply equally to twenty-first century New Orleans, because in both contexts, chaos becomes an occasion for considering what a society is really made of. Smith identifies an "appeal” in "the idea of disorder, not just to those dissatisfied with the status quo, but also to those of power and privilege within it.” No one may "want” such urban disasters, but many of us use them "to justify as well as to question the order of things” (Smith 1995: 8-9). The perceivable facts of an urban apocalypse are more than sufficient to capture any imagination, but those who need to find instruction or vindication in these events will magnify or invent their horrors in order to explain, or even to provoke, inadequate and inhumane acts of response.

Well over a century after the Chicago Fire, Smith unearthed much legendary material reflecting the stereotypes harbored by the elite and middle classes – the principal creators, controllers, and consumers of the commercial media of the time. The central images, like the most enduring, of a poor Irish woman, Mrs. O’Leary, and her cow causing the blaze—cast blame on the lower classes. Other legends assert the guilt of German immigrants as well. Yet even from such a relatively recent event, Smith produces no legendry reflecting the views of the poor immigrants generally blamed for the conflagration. For folklorists like myself, the extent to which we are able to mine such stories may be the best measure of how well we are doing our job. In Chicago, in 1871, no one was doing it. With Katrina in 2009, too few are. We continue to rely too strongly on the standard channels. The darkness of ground zero becomes the blank screen upon which to project the legend debate—the worst fears of those who are allowed to speak. But in the case of the media, the poor have played no substantial part in the image-making.

An outsider bias is at work in even the most seemingly sympathetic treatments of Katrina survivors. In Douglas Brinkley’s Katrina chronicle, The Great Deluge, one African American Katrina survivor, Charmaine Neville, a member of the famous musical family, is admitted to the discourse only to be dismissed:

Traumatized in the darkness, she claimed she saw an alligator thrashing about, pulling an old man into the murky water. She said, in fact, she saw many alligators. It’s a doubtful claim. Traumatized, her mind was playing tricks on her. Evil shadows were lurking all over Bywater. You’d see alligators too if you had been raped on a dark roof. (Brinkley 2006: 265)

In the same book, Brinkley interviews medical personnel who reported hearing sniper fire during the evacuation of Charity Hospital:

Their profound SOS was heard around the world. But in coming days, when it became clear that reports of gunshots and violence in New Orleans were overdrawn, some press questioned whether the sniper story was apocryphal, a creation of histrionic doctors…. But there was no reason to dismiss the claims of Charity and Tulane doctors…. They were credible eyewitnesses. (Brinkley 2006: 489-90)

When these lines were written, months after the events described, Brinkley cited no more verification for one report than for the other—but the white doctors were shoe-horned into evidence while the black musician was an object of disbelief.

Thus absolutist scholars and the mainstream media have both played their parts in causing us to doubt Katrina’s victims. A third, and most intimate, level at which we have distanced ourselves from the survivors is through our own revulsion at what they have experienced. As much as we sympathize with them, we really do not want to feel their pain. Psychologist Rebecca Campbell and other trauma specialists decry ways in which interviewers regularly create emotional cushions to insulate themselves from their interviewees. Campbell demonstrates how "we” social scientists and reporters "are ghostwriters for our own work,” burying our feelings in impersonal methods so strained that they filter out the emotional truth of the narrators—even as they reify our own worldviews (Campbell 2002: 14).

Until recently, researchers have been trained to cultivate distance as part of their posture of scientific objectivity. One of the many problems with this stance is that such objectivity is impossible; a second is that the mask of objectivity works against the emotional engagement essential to living legend. To record a legend in vivo, researchers do better to reveal their humanity and to be ready to volunteer emotionally at the same level that they solicit. A third flaw is the researcher’s impulse of self-preservation. Interviewers tend to feel threatened by people who have suffered intense trauma. In order to continue to believe in the security or justice of their own world, those who experience trauma vicariously through interviews tend to find fault with the victims—if they had evacuated when told or had not shot at helicopters, such things would never have happened to them.[1] An objective stance typically serves to increase the distance of the interviewer from the narrator and to intensify feelings of alienation on both sides of the mic.

Many have cast blame on the news media for the failed response to Katrina, but in fact the biases of the media do not differ substantially from those that social scientists bring to their interviews. Absolutist researchers tend to treat Katrina survivors’ legends as delusions; media culture repudiates their voices or simply ignores them altogether; and interviewers unwilling to sacrifice their sense of safety blame them for their misfortunes. These three mutually reinforcing frames deny the speakers’ reality even when we quote them word for word.

The chaos of Katrina was all too real, but for the vast majority of us looking on, those who pictured and purveyed it were the mainstream news media, who reported a remarkable combination of images projected not from the events that unfolded before us, but ultimately and thoroughly from our pre-existing fears. The horrors on the ground and under water were so pervasive that no embellishment was needed to conjure ineradicable images—but the embellishment came, nonetheless. Every one of my vicarious experiences of the drowned city was infected with this embellishment, until I had the chance to hear directly from those who had been there.

[1]: Melvin Lerner is credited with the concept of the "just-world” hypothesis, which can be simply stated as a general tendency to believe that people generally "get what they deserve”: if they are victimized by disaster, they did something to bring it on (Lerner and Miller 1978). Ronnie Janoff-Bullman (1989, 1992) applied the concept particularly to the ways in which trauma victims experience despair through experiencing the world’s injustice. Rebecca Campbell (2002: 41-64) masterfully applies the "just world hypothesis” to the interview situations in which interviewers, despite their conscious intent, tend to blame the victims. [back to main text]


Brinkley, Douglas. 2006. The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. New York: William Morrow/Harper Collins.

Brunvand, Jan H. 1981. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. New York: W.W. Norton.

_____. 1984. The Choking Doberman and Other "New” Urban Legends. New York: W.W. Norton.

_____. 1986. The Mexican Pet: More "New” Urban Legends and Some Old Favorites. New York: W.W. Norton.

Campbell, Rebecca. 2002. Emotionally Involved: The Impact of Researching Rape. New York/London: Routledge.

Dégh, Linda. 1971. The "Belief Legend” in Modern Society: Form, Function, and Relationship to Other Genres. In American Folk Legend: A Symposium, ed. Wayland D. Hand. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Pp. 55-68.

_____. 2001. Legend and Belief. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Dégh, Linda, and Andrew Vazsonyi. 1973. The Dialectics of the Legend. Folklore Preprints Series 1:6. Bloomington: Indiana University Folklore Institute.

Dorson, Richard. 1981. Land of the Millrats. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ellis, Bill. 1982. De Legendis Urbis. Journal of American Folklore 96: 200-208.

Ellis, Bill. 2003. Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Georges, Robert A. 1971. The General Concept of Legend: Some Assumptions to Be Reexamined and Reassessed. In American Folk Legend: A Symposium, ed. Wayland D. Hand. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Pp. 1-19.

Goldstein, Diane. 1992. "Welcome to the Mainland, Welcome to the World of AIDS: Cultural Viability, Localization, and Contemporary Legend,” Contemporary Legend 2: 23-40.

Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie. 1989. Assumptive Worlds and the Stress of Traumatic Events: Applications of Schema Construct. Social Cognition 7: 113-36.

Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie. 1992. Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma. New York: The Free Press.

Lerner, M.J., and D.T. Miller. 1978. Just World Research and the Attribution Process: Looking Back and Ahead. Psychological Bulletin 85: 1030-1051.

Ranke, Friedrich. 1925. Grundfragen der Volkssagenforschung. Niederdeutsche Zeitschrift für Volkskunde 3: 12-23.

Rice, Judi. 2005. Email message to Pat Jasper, September 2005.

Ridley, Florence. 1967. A Tale Told Too Often. Western Folklore 26: 153-56.

Smith, Carl. 1995. Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Paul. 1989. Contemporary Legend: A Legendary Genre? In The Questing Beast: Perspectives on Contemporary Legend IV, edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press. Pp. 91-101.

Wilson, William. 1973. Folklore and History: Fact amid the Legends. Utah Historical Quarterly 41 (Winter): 40-58.

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