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New Orleans frets about image

Efforts underway to counter tales of post-Katrina chaos

NEW ORLEANS -- Karen Conway looks up from the cup of coffee she is nursing at the French Quarter landmark Cafe du Monde and raises both eyebrows, her green eyes going wide.

This, she says, is the look she got from friends back home in Florissant, Mo., when she told them she planned to visit New Orleans with her husband -- her small contribution to the epic rebuilding of the city.

''They said, Why would you ever want to go back to that place?" she says. ''They just think it's a wasteland. They just kept bringing up everything they saw on TV that week -- all the shooting and the killings and those people looting the stores."

''That week" was the days after Hurricane Katrina plowed into New Orleans and overwhelmed its levees, and the nation believed it had devolved into a maelstrom of rapes and murders -- a city out of control, a city of savages.

Some of it was true: New Orleans was indeed a lawless city that week. People looted, sometimes for bread and water, sometimes for televisions and DVDs.

There was shooting. There was death.

But law enforcement officials now say the most apocalyptic reports from that week -- tales of bodies stacked in freezers, of babies being raped -- amounted to nothing more than rumors, fanned by fear, spread sometimes by the city's own leadership.

Those are the images that were branded on the national consciousness after Katrina.

And they have left some New Orleans residents -- people who deeply love this place -- worrying about whether their city has been scarred, unfairly and forever.

This question is not exactly a top priority for the few New Orleanians who are returning to the city to empty out their flood-ravaged homes and begin mapping out what happens next, or to find out whether home even exists anymore.

But some of them, after relating their personal stories of flight from the storm and the loss they found in its wake, confess to fretting about the damage that may have been done to their city's image.

They wonder whether New Orleans, always and still symbolized by jazz and ''bontemps," now also stands for chaos, as people turned on one another at a time of great desperation.

''They were searing images to the rest of the country," says an orange-gloved, black-booted Rich Lenz, 46, emptying his home in the heavily flooded Vista Park neighborhood of waterlogged belongings. ''They were seeing the worst."

He says it would be a shame if the reputation stuck to New Orleans.

''It is a unique American city," he says, ''and it should not be allowed to die."

The horror stories that came out of New Orleans during the week after Katrina were almost impossible to believe.

On Sept. 1, New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass reported of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center: ''We have individuals who are getting raped; we have individuals who are getting beaten."

Also Sept. 1, Acadian Ambulance, charged with removing the sick and injured from the Superdome, suspended flights after a report in the media that a rescue helicopter had been fired on.

Later examinations by reporters and government officials have found the reports of widespread violence in New Orleans in the week after the storm to be highly exaggerated and, in many cases, flatly false.

Now the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau is rolling out a new image campaign highlighting the city's recovery.

''We have focused only on the negatives, and not enough on incredible stories of the human spirit and of rebirth and rebuilding," says Steve Perry, head of the bureau. ''That's equally important as the tragedy."

People who live here stress that the violence that actually did occur after Katrina struck could have taken place anywhere. They say it has much more to do with government neglect after the storm than anything innate in the population.

''Not everybody here is bad," said Shannon Sharpe, a New Orleans real estate agent. ''You get a few bad apples and everything gets turned around."

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