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Investigating sexual assault in New Orleans in the days after Katrina

In the first few chaotic days following Hurricane Katrina, the extraordinary collapse of New Orleans' infrastructure led to a citywide condition of what the national media reported, colorfully, as "lawlessness." While covering the rapidly devolving situation in the Louisiana Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center -- where the city's most vulnerable population waited for the delayed arrival of food, water, information and ultimately rescue -- CNN and other media sources reported that rapes and sexual assaults were occurring in the under-policed shelters and in the streets.

Then-Superintendent of Police Eddie Compass responded by saying that no rapes had been reported. Mayor Ray Nagin initially also dismissed the question of widespread sexual assault -- although later on, while testifying before a congressional committee, he amended that comment by saying he couldn't imagine a rape victim wanting to come forward "in this media frenzy."

That sentiment, according to Judy Benitez, the director of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault (LAFASA), may have hit the nail on the head.

"Even the FBI says that only one in 10 rapes is ever reported, under normal circumstances," says Benitez. "And the normal systems were in chaos -- the social-services system, the criminal justice system -- they were completely out of whack."

In the best of times, Benitez points out, victims of sexual assault are among the least likely of crime victims to come forward with their stories. With normal response systems down and with victims living, for days and weeks on end, in uncertain circumstances, it's more likely, she says, that victims simply prioritized other concerns.

"The reason that those of us who work with victims of sexual assault are sure there was a problem is because, unfortunately, that's how some people deal with feeling angry and powerless," Benitez says. "And in addition to the lack of police presence and social structure, there were a lot of ways in which people were rendered vulnerable to those who were more predatory. The people who stayed in New Orleans were sick, very young, very old, poor, mentally ill, or had children with them."

In the first weeks of September, LAFASA (headquartered in Baton Rouge) joined forces with a group of other organizations, including the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), several national police organizations and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, to create a database of reported assaults that occurred in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

They used a system of reporting and verification developed by an epidemiologist from San Diego. When Rita hit Sept. 18 during the first days of the project, the group decided to simply keep the project up and running and integrate reports of violence that occurred during the second storm.

At the six-month mark, the system has reports of 44 assaults, 35 related to Hurricane Katrina. Most of the reports were taken directly from the victims, via rape-crisis centers in areas that received large groups of evacuees (68 percent of the assaults were reported in Louisiana, and 37.8 percent to a rape-crisis center). A powerful indicator that these assaults were prompted by the unique situation after the storm is that 40.5 percent of victims identified their attacker as a stranger, a shocking contrast to the prevailing and statistically supported wisdom that most sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.

Out of 28 victims who specified the location of their assault, half were attacked in a public shelter (four at the Superdome, one at the Houston Astrodome, two at the Convention Center and five at another, unspecified shelter.) In Florida, as part of a measure to keep public shelters safe, registered sex offenders are not permitted in public shelters and are required to have alternate emergency plans on file with their caseworkers; if they're unable to do so, they have to ride out emergencies in their local jail.

In a bill authored by Sen. Jody Amedee and passed during the Louisiana Legislature's special session, Louisiana's registered sex offenders may seek refuge in public shelters but must notify shelter managers of their status. The bill absolves shelter managers from any liability for anything that happens as a result of the offender being sheltered there, but doesn't have any specific language detailing how the manager ought to deal with the offender's presence. In any case, Benitez comments, there are plenty of potential offenders around who haven't been caught and registered.

While Benitez says that she knows that there's little chance that those who exploited the gruesome opportunity presented by Katrina and Rita will be apprehended, she hopes that ultimately the data collected will help map the needs that arise in this area after a disaster of Katrina's proportions.

"We're trying to get a scope on what happens when normal institutions fall into chaos, what happens with those people who'd be inclined to take advantage of that, as well as seeing how those outside the immediate impact area are affected by the influx of a huge number of evacuees," says Benitez. She also takes care to point out that the NOPD, the sex-crimes unit in particular (who did not return calls for comment here) has been extremely supportive as LAFASA continues to gather data on what happened during those days in September.

"It's hard for them to accept, I think, that at this point we can't do anything but document," Benitez says. "But to a victim, that's not nothing. That's really important."

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