NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who apologized on the air Wednesday night for lying about an experience covering the Iraq War, is now facing scrutiny over his gripping accounts of Hurricane Katrina, the disaster that burnished his nightly news bona fides almost a decade ago.
Related story: Brian Williams' credibility questions after fake Iraq story
Williams’ account of seeing a body float by in the French Quarter — which remained largely dry — and even a claim of catching dysentery from drinking Katrina floodwaters have raised eyebrows among bloggers and elsewhere since he took it on the chin this week over a claim that he rode in a helicopter that was downed by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq.
“I was instead in a following aircraft. We all landed after the ground fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert,” Williams said Wednesday. He painted his earlier description as a “bungled attempt” to thank an Iraq War veteran.
The online feeding frenzy quickly turned to the 55-year-old anchor’s signature assignment: covering Katrina from before it made landfall, when he spent the night of the storm with refuge-seekers in the Superdome and then reported on the harrowing days that followed.
“When you look out of your hotel window in the French Quarter and watch a man float by face down, when you see bodies that you last saw in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and swore to yourself that you would never see in your country,” Williams said in a 2006 interview.
And last year, in an interview with Tom Brokaw, the man he replaced in the anchor chair at NBC, Williams said:
“My week, two weeks there was not helped by the fact that I accidentally ingested some of the floodwater. I became very sick with dysentery, our hotel was overrun with gangs, I was rescued in the stairwell of a five-star hotel in New Orleans by a young police officer. We are friends to this day. And uh, it just was uh, I look back at total agony.”
But the French Quarter, the original high ground of New Orleans, was not impacted by the floodwaters that overwhelmed the vast majority of the city.
A spokesman for NBC did not immediately respond Thursday to questions about those comments, the hotel to which Williams referred, whether Williams stands by the claims or whether the network is reviewing them.
Williams has described his experiences during Katrina as personally transformative, and he has returned to the city and the topic numerous times since.
“I saw fear, I saw death, I saw depravity, I saw firearms being brandished, I saw looting,” he told the Los Angeles Times a year after Katrina made landfall.
He also recalled the danger of the moment in a 2007 interview on C-SPAN.
“We had to have men with guns behind me one night because I was the only source of light downtown, was the lights that were illuminating the broadcast,” Williams said. “We were told not to drink our bottled water in front of people because we could get killed for it.”
Other accounts have Williams curled up in the fetal position between his on-air reports from a bad bout with dysentery.
A spokeswoman from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said dysentery is not one of the reportable diseases the agency tracks but that contaminated water sources are possible “transmission points” for dysentery.
Dr. Brobson Lutz, a former city health director who manned an EMS trailer that was set up in the 900 block of Dumaine Street, a block from his house in the French Quarter, said he was a fan of Williams but dubious of his claims.
“We were never wet. It was never wet,” he remarked of the conditions in the city’s most historic neighborhood.
As for dysentery, “I saw a lot of people with cuts and bruises and such, but I don’t recall a single, solitary case of gastroenteritis during Katrina or in the whole month afterward,” Lutz said.
As for Williams saying he accidentally drank floodwaters, Lutz added, “I don’t know anybody that’s tried that to see, but my dogs drank it, and they didn’t have any problems.”
In his interview last year, Brokaw praised Williams, saying that with his reporting during Katrina, Williams “took ownership, if you will, of the anchor chair” following a longtime stint as Brokaw’s understudy.
Since then, Williams has become well known for his sharp-witted comic turns on the late-night talk show circuit. And he has continued to check in on a city that he has said “is always going to be a part of me.”
Questions about Williams’ recollections of his experience during Katrina weave into a larger tapestry of erratic, and sometimes downright erroneous, journalism that emerged from the chaos of the storm and its aftermath.
Four weeks after the storm, The Times-Picayune published an article noting that many of the most shocking stories that had been reported by media outlets across the world — reports of widespread violence and babies being killed, raped or trampled — had no apparent basis in fact.
More recently, the myth-making that arose in the storm’s aftermath has again made news with the box-office success of “American Sniper,” a biopic about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
Kyle has claimed in published accounts that he came to New Orleans after Katrina with another sniper, set up shop on the roof of the Superdome and shot roughly 30 armed men. That account has been widely disputed, given that a large group of bullet-riddled corpses in that area — or anywhere, for that matter — was never discovered.
Kyle was shot dead in 2013, allegedly by a U.S. Marine suffering from stress.
Gordon Russell contributed to this story. Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.