Photos show Brian Williams' New Orleans hotel was surrounded by water

This story will not prove that Brian Williams saw a body floating in the New Orleans' floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina, but found and confirmed photographs that show the NBC Anchormans' recollection is not as out of the question as some have claimed.

Williams is on a self-imposed time out from anchoring while his network looks into exaggerations about how close to danger he was while reporting in Iraq.

After Williams apologized for "misremembering" what happened in Iraq in March 2003, journalists began turning over stones to see if they could find other examples of exaggeration.

Over the weekend, the website GotNews flagged an interview in which Williams said, "When you look out your hotel window in the French Quarter and watch a man float by face down..." and round two of Williams' nightmare began. Witnesses emerged who said the hotel where Williams was staying, The Ritz Carlton, was not flooded, or near floodwaters.

Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, who was the commander in charge of the government's task force managing the response to Katrina, told CNN the flood waters around the Ritz, "would likely not have been high enough" for a body to float by. Others pointed out that the French Quarter was spared from flooding so Williams was making up the story.

Not so fast.

The photos below were first published in a 2005 story by the United Methodist News Service and were captured by Charles Herring, a retired U.S. Army Chaplin, who was in New Orleans to attend a conference. Herring had a room in the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Canal Street, the same hotel where Williams was staying.

Herring told me that he captured the photos from a hotel balcony "a couple of days" after the storm hit. He was not certain of the exact date.
In one photo, the water outside the Ritz Carlton was not deep enough to cover a newspaper box, but high enough to top a curb. It is not possible to know if the boat in the photo was floating or resting on the ground.

[caption id="attachment_318613" align="aligncenter" width="388"]Photo by Charles Herring (Photo by Charles Herring)[/caption]

In a second photo, Herring captured an image of the water below the balcony of the Ritz Hotel.

[caption id="attachment_318615" align="aligncenter" width="480"]Flood waters outside the Ritz Carlton hotel-photo by Charles Herring Flood waters outside the Ritz Carlton hotel. (photo by Charles Herring)[/caption]

Now, let's look at that same location on Google Street view.

When you look at the water levels on the buildings and compare them to the buildings today, it appears the flood levels were about one- to two-feet high.

I asked Herring if he ever saw a body in the water. "You know, I can't remember if I saw it myself or I just heard others who said there were bodies in the water," he said during our phone conversation.

Even though Williams said the hotel is in the French Quarter, locals pinged him because, technically, it isn't. It is about a block outside the Quarter. In fact the hotel's website describes it as being "on the edge of the French Quarter."

And were there bodies found near the local of the hotel? Two maps of where bodies were found, one produced by the New York Times and the other by the Times-Picayune in New Orleans both indicate there were many bodies in the general area.

[caption id="attachment_318617" align="aligncenter" width="335"]Times Picayune of bodies recovered post-Katrina Times-Picayune of bodies recovered post-Katrina[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_318619" align="aligncenter" width="581"]New York Times map of bodies recovered after Katrina New York Times map of bodies recovered after Katrina[/caption]

There are still some questions about his reporting of Katrina that need to be answered -- What of his claims that gangs were running through his hotel or that he saw a person take their own life in the SuperDome? But his claim of seeing a body float by his hotel room may be true, and it is only fair to acknowledge that.

Disclosure: Brian Williams wrote an endorsement for my book “Aim for the Heart.”

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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