Law-enforcement authorities dismissed early reports of widespread rapes in New Orleans during the lawless days following Hurricane Katrina. But a growing body of evidence suggests there were more storm-related sexual assaults than previously known.
Female victims, now displaced from New Orleans, are slowly coming forward with a different story than the official one. Two national crime-victims’ groups have reported a spike in the number of reported rapes that happened to storm evacuees. The numbers are not dramatic, but they are significant when seen in light of the official number of post-Katrina rapes and attempted rapes: four.
Judy Benitez is executive director of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, a statewide coalition of rape crisis centers. She says as she watched New Orleans descend into chaos after Katrina, she knew what would happen.
Concerned over unreported and underreported rapes, her organization, together with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center—which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—created a national database to track sexual assaults that happened after Katrina. In the six weeks since the Web site has been up, with almost no publicity, it has received 42 reports of sexual assaults.
A spokesperson with the Resource Center said the number is steadily growing. Already, these preliminary cases show a high number of gang rapes and rapes by strangers, both unusual characteristics. The 42 reports include assaults that happened inside New Orleans and outside the city, for instance, in host homes.
Another group, Witness Justice, a Maryland-based non-profit that assists victims of violent crimes, claims to have received 156 reports of post-Katrina violent crimes; about a third of those involved sexual assaults.
Benitez and others interviewed for this report believe that police authorities—who were anxious to discount initially exaggerated reports of mayhem—are downplaying violent crimes that happened in the anarchy after the storm. Lt. Dave Benelli, commander of the sex crimes unit with the New Orleans Police Department, denies that.
“We’re not downsizing anything,” Benelli says. “I’m telling you the number of reported rapes we had.”
Benelli says his team investigated two attempted rapes inside the Superdome, and two additional reports of rapes that happened in the city, one of which was the 25-year-old hairdresser.
When presented with the additional cases collected by victims’ advocates groups, Benelli acknowledges that the police simply doesn’t know the extent of sex crimes after the storm.
“I admit that rapes are underreported,” Benelli says. “I know more sexual assaults took place. I’ve expressed many times that we’re willing to investigate any sexual assaults that happened in this city at any time. We can only deal with what we know.”