The Rumor Mill
If there is one thing that Sisters Katrina and Rita have taught us it is this: Don’t believe everything you hear, unless you know firsthand it is true.
The rumor mill is always churning.
When you have a disaster and normal communication is lost and people are displaced, the rumor mill shifts gears. Speculations become “truths” and things spread like wildfire whether they have an ounce of truth or not.
We found this out quickly at our evacuee shelter, The City of Hope. So much was coming out of New Orleans by radio, TV, or word of mouth, such as “Someone’s brother who was told by their friend who’d seen it themselves.” That is why we developed our town council to keep the leaders and families informed. It is also why we published Dry Creek’s only newspaper, The Bugle. At mealtime, we gave announcements in both English and Spanish.
The rumor mill works fastest when it is going from one language to another and then back again!
I fondly recall the group of Korean schoolchildren who stayed at the Camp in 1996. They were all city kids from Seoul, a city of 10 million. We took them on tours of our rural community and had a great time for the month they were there.
When touring a ranch, I stopped to stir up a fire ant mound. I explained that the sting of these ants can even kill a newly born baby calf if it is laid on their nest after birth. The interpretation of this to the Koreans elicited many oohs and aahs and further conversation among them.
Weeks later one of the bilingual leaders told me one of the children had written home about America and included this statement, “In America they have ants that will kill you if they sting you.”
You can imagine the reaction of an already worried Korean mom when she read that!
All of us as children played the game where a long line of children would pass along a story.
By the time it had gone through ten mouths and ten ears it would invariably be much different.
Over and over in the days after Katrina, rumors would come up and have to be investigated, verified, or squashed. As leaders our retort became, “Who told you that? Do they know it firsthand?”
It was comical and maddening all at the same time.
The most memorable example of this happened on a Monday night one week after Katrina.
Our town council was meeting in the office. We were sharing and planning for the week.
All of sudden a breathless lady from the Horeb church burst in and shouted, “The Red Cross is giving away money. If you register you can go to Western Union and get your money by wire.”
All planning of meals, schooling, laundry services, and trash pickup stopped.
A bilingual clamor of conversation in English and Spanish filled the room.
The meeting was for all practical purposes over.
Everyone’s attention was focused on one thing: Red Cross money for the taking!
Before everyone could storm out, order was restored. I asked the lady, “Have you gotten your money?”
“Well, not yet!”
“Do you know anyone who has actually gotten their money?”
“I heard that Cookie has.”
I told them to go get Cookie.
We had to have a first-hand report before we dismissed this meeting.
I thought about visits to black churches where the refrain for testimony was, “Can I get a witness? Can I get a witness for what the Lord has done?”
In a few minutes they returned with Cookie.
She had a big smile on her face.
Something good had happened to her for sure!
All twenty people in the room had eyes and ears for one thing: Cookie’s testimony. I felt as if we were in a grand jury room and the star witness had been called to give the facts.
Cookie, in pretty fair English, told of calling the Red Cross hotline number, getting a confirmed registration number and then going to Brookshire’s Grocery in DeRidder where the Western Union office was located.
This was instantly interpreted excitedly to those in the meeting who spoke little English.
We had it straight from the horse’s mouth.
This was one thing from the rumor mill that was true.
Our meeting soon broke up. Everyone rushed out to stake his or her claim. I was happy.
These people who had lost so much deserved this. If this made their night a little easier, it was worth more than the $350 per head of household plus $300 for each dependent.
The best “rumor mill” story happened on the day before Rita hit.
It was on Thursday, September 23. Rita still seemed poised to make landfall on the upper Texas coast. Each morning we ran our camp bus as a school bus to East Beauregard High.
Most mornings Todd Burnaman drove, but this Thursday was my turn.
At our home that morning my teacher wife, DeDe, anxiously awaited any word on school being dismissed. Nothing was on the television and no one from school had called, so we knew school was in session at least for the first part of the day.
Leaving the house that morning reminded me what mornings had been like as a school principal.
Everyone would be calling wanting to know about school.
Once, the entire community lost our electricity during a nighttime spring storm. I got up early and got word we would go on with school. Beauregard Electric assured us they would have the lights back on before eight.
I hurriedly dressed and was ready to get to school to answer the dozens of calls we knew would be coming in. I marched Clay, age eight, and Clint, age six, to the living room and instructed them, “Boys, lots of folks will be calling the house wanting to know about school. Your mom will be busy getting ready for school as well as getting baby Terry up and ready to go. You two are in charge of the phone.”
“Now here are your instructions: Answer and say, ‘My dad has already gone to school. We will have school today.’”
I had each of the boys repeat this simple message back to me. Quickly I was out of the house, into the dark, and on my way to school.
Sure enough the school phones rang nonstop as we assured worried parents and disappointed students that school would be in session today. After about thirty minutes of this, I got a break and decided to call the house to check on DeDe and the boys.
A polite child’s voice answered on the second ring. It was Clint, our first grader.
I couldn’t resist… in a lowered voice I asked, “Son, I’m calling to see if there will be any school today.”
Clint instantly answered, “No school today.”
I yelled into the phone, “Clint Iles, what have you been telling folks?” He proceeded to cough, sputter, and explain that he ‘just got confused.’ I believed psychologists call what he did “a Freudian slip.” Saying what you want even when it is not what you meant to say!
Clint’s famous story is with me as I backed out of the driveway and headed to the camp.
I love to see the 50–60 Katrina evacuees come to the bus each morning. Most are Hispanic and look so cute in their tan, blue, and white school uniforms. The parents of most walk them hand-in-hand to the bus or from the Dining Hall where they’ve had breakfast.
But this Thursday morning was different as I pulled the bus beside the Dining Hall. Very few were out front and of the ones who were, very few were in school uniforms.
Several came to the bus door and hopefully asked, “There’s not any school today, is there?”
Another one said, “We were told there is no school today!”
My question was, “Well, who told you?” I got various replies from the source of today’s latest turn of the rumor mill.
I told them: “Look, my wife is a teacher. She would know if school was cancelled. Also Channel 7 would have announced it if there was no school.”
A look of dejection filled many faces as they headed back to their cabins for their uniforms and books. Even the ones in uniform had hoped the rumor was true.
I was not the most popular man on the campgrounds at that moment.
I’d rained on their parade.
One by one most returned. Their looks of dejection were hard to ignore. It was natural in the breasts of students (and even teachers) to always be hoping that the weather/electricity/ breakdown would result in a free day.
They still questioned me as if I must really know for sure.
I told them the story of a few years ago when a prank caller informed Channel 7 that school for Beauregard Parish had been cancelled due to the night’s rains.
The culprit was never apprehended who called and claimed to be Dr. Joe Aguillard, our superintendent.
I’ve always suspected it was a teacher or a bus driver, but definitely not a parent.
These same parents now dragging their children to the bus had clapped heartily two weeks before when we announced that all student evacuees would be starting school.
They had had enough of being stuck with these kids all day long in the dorms.
Sadly the bus filled up. We’d be about fifteen minutes later than usual, but they’d be at school in time for the first bell. They were not happy campers.
I hadn’t driven a bus this blue since my coaching days when we once lost a triple overtime game at Plainview High.
As I eased over the speed bumps near the camp entrance, a lumbering figure came charging out of the side office door.
It’s Lee Crider running, flailing his arms and hollering.
It is a comical sight seeing Lee, a very big man, running like he hasn’t run since his days as a pulling guard at Welsh High a generation ago.
He was yelling as he waved and waddled.
Lee hollered, “They’ve called off school. No school today.”
Cheers erupted on the bus. I whipped into the parking lot, set the brake and said, “No one gets off this bus until I check this out for sure.”
Their faces dropped. They believed that I was going to take them to school and drop them off no matter what.
I turned off the bus and went to Lee who was joined by his wife Missy at the office door. They had early duty that morning and had just gotten a call saying school was cancelled.
I cross-examined them, “Who did you talk to?”
“Someone from the office.”
I’m an old pro at this… I said, “Missy, call the office and get the principal, Tim Cooley, on the phone. I want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.”
She didn’t get Tim but Mrs. Sugar Ford, our wonderful school receptionist.
“No school today” was confirmed. They were opening up schools for shelters and this necessitated this last-minute decision.
The Katrina kids had won.
But I just couldn’t resist one more spin of the rumor mill.
I walked resolutely to the bus with a scowl on my face. I sat down, fastened my seat belt, cranked the bus and eased forward.
It was nearly painful watching the faces in the big rear view mirror.
Then I stopped the bus, turned around and announced: “No school today. Go have fun!”
The yelling and hollering is still reverberating in my ears. They ran off the bus, little streaks of tan and blue running for the hills. Running in joy. Running fast so if the school changed its mind, they’d be long gone.
It ended up being the last time they loaded up on our yellow camp/school bus.
Of course there was no school on Friday.
Rita made her course correction and put us in the bull’s eye.
After the storm passed on Saturday, Sunday saw us without power and water.
By Monday all but a few of the seventy plus students were gone. Gone back to Westwego, Covington, Marrero, Terrytown, Kenner, Gretna and Metairie.
I miss them.
In the coming weeks, especially after Rita hit, fighting the rumor mill was nearly a full-time job.
Twice daily we attended meetings with the Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness.
Leaders from every agency in our parish government as well as aid agencies and shelter leaders were present. It was a great time to quiet the rumor mill.
One of the biggest battles in the days after Rita was misinformation called in to radio and TV stations.
One caller to APEX broadcasting in Lake Charles criticized longtime DeRidder Mayor Gerald Johnson for “going to Ft. Worth to escape the storm and leaving DeRidder helpless.”
All of us had sat in two meetings per day with Mayor Johnson in the days leading up to and after Rita’s visit.
But due to the rumor mill some people believed he had left for Texas.
A lot of the men at the daily briefing loved to rag him about “How are things in Ft. Worth, Mayor?”
In summary I believe the aftermath of these storms is a good time for each of us to develop our own plan for dealing with the rumor mill.
I’ve always liked the Rotary Club Four-Way test. It reads:
- Is it the Truth?
- Is it Fair to all concerned?
- Will it build Goodwill and Better Friendships?
- Will it be Beneficial to all concerned?
My brother-in-law Greg told of once being at an Rotary Club meeting where they excitedly announced that Governor Edwin Edwards would be speaking at the next month’s state Optimist meeting.
Governor Edwards has a well-established reputation for telling what he felt needed to be told, not bothering to always let the facts get in the way of the party line..
One Rotarian wag raised his hand and half-seriously asked, “Will the governor be speaking on the Four-Way Test?”
The rumor mill. It rolls along
In Dry Creek,
In New Orleans.
In Africa, it’s called “The African Grapevine.”
“By the way have you heard that rumor going around that they are giving away generators in the Wal-Mart parking lot in DeRidder?
You can get one if your last name starts with W and your birthday is in April. Sure I know it’s true. My sister’s ex-boyfriend’s cousin was there and got one.
Why sure I believe it’s true. Don’t you?”
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