Rumor mill working overtime after Florida hurricanes

Saturday, September 25th 2004, 11:06 am
By: News On 6

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ The rumors swirling throughout Florida after back-to-back hurricanes were every bit as fierce and destructive as the storms themselves.

There was the one after Charley hit _ started by a woman whose ex-husband heard it from a fire marshal _ that corpses were stacked like cord wood in two refrigerated semi trailers.

And the gas-rationing one out of Tampa as Ivan approached, touching off a rush by motorists to get their $5 limit before the storm. It was so rampant that Gov. Jeb Bush had to take to the airwaves to quash it. An ``urban legend,'' he called it.

But all the hearsay comes to no surprise to those who know something about rumors and how they get started.

``Natural disasters are a major incubator for rumors,'' said Gary Fine, an expert on the psychology of rumors at Northwestern University in Chicago. ``They work so well because the events are both important and ambiguous, and often in times of great stress people lose their critical ability.''

Rumors tend to start early after the disaster when information is scarce and emotions are raw, Fine said. And in those situations, people might not be inclined to believe what the government is telling them.

``In the midst of things, people are looking for any kind information about what's going to happen next,'' Fine said. ``So a neighbor will tell them something that they're just speculating or guessing about, and the person who hears it takes it as fact. We're searching for any kind of news we can get our hands on, and we're not very particular about what the source is.''

Such was the case in Palm Beach County after Frances, when rumors that fuel and basic supplies were available at one place or another had desperate residents speeding through darkened streets to reach gas stations and stores that were either closed or didn't exist.

After Ivan, an account of three sisters being killed in the storm spread through Perdido Bay on the Florida-Alabama border. All were alive and well.

According to the tale, the Butgereit sisters, ages 11, 14 and 18, were found dead in the lagoon behind the family's heavily damaged home, and their bodies were fished out late at night so not to panic people.

The family, which had gone to Tallahassee to escape the storm, had to rush home and go to police and the morgue to straighten it out. They ended up greeting people who stopped by the house to pay their respects.

Post-disaster rumors often spread because the stories seem plausible, said John Llewellyn, a communications professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., who teaches a class on rumor and urban legend.

For example, when hurricane victims devastation all around them, it's not a stretch to believe that hundreds of people were killed in horrible ways.

``It's not an offense against the state of public education or common sense, it's more evidence of how difficult that particular situation is for people,'' Llewellyn said.

After Andrew in 1992, rumors abounded that hundreds of bodies were secretly being trucked out of town in refrigerated trucks to minimize panic and protect tourism. And after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks, rumors quickly spread of terrorist confessions, commercial airlines being shot down by American fighters, and even one about a firefighter on the 83rd floor of one of the World Trade Center towers who survived the collapse of the building.

Pensacola News-Journal opinion editor Carl Wernicke fielded some of the rumor calls after Ivan and finally wrote a column this week debunking them.

``For some reason, people always think there's a real story out there that they're not getting,'' he said.

The atrocious anecdotes included a tornado killing 157 people when it tore the roof off a local hospital (that one came from the wife of a sheriff's deputy), a 40-foot tidal wave washing bodies into a river, and morgue workers secretly preparing hundreds of bodies for burial.

Ivan and its aftermath killed 23 people in Florida. Charley claimed 31 lives in Florida.

``Often we will accept those claims that in any other situation would be kind of ludicrous,'' said Fine, the Northwestern professor. ``To suggest that the government is stockpiling bodies is not the kind of thing Floridians would have thought plausible two months ago.''