On August 29, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Louisiana coast, directly devastating several coastal towns and flooding the city of New Orleans, whose levees were not strong enough to withstand the water. In the days that followed, over a thousand people died. Looting broke out in the sunken city, and evacuees were directed to the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center, where the authorities proved themselves unable to cope with the hungry, thirsty, and sometimes violent crowds. Americans were horrified by both the damage wrought by the weather and the stunning incompetence of the local, state, and federal response.
If a single moment defined that first week, it came on September 1, as thousands of people found themselves stranded at the convention center without food and water. They had been gathering there for days, and the media had been covering them almost from the beginning; some starving refugees had died right in front of the reporters. And Michael Brown, then-chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told CNN's Paula Zahn that "the federal government did not even know about the convention center people until today."
Yet no government screwup is so colossal that it can't be used to justify yet more government. For most liberals, Katrina merely proved that Washington needs more resources to prevent and respond to such disasters; for many conservatives, it proved that society is a fragile construct that can collapse into chaos at any moment, and that only police or military force can hold it together in times of stress. As the following six reports reveal, those positions hardly exhaust the range of possible responses to the disaster and its aftermath.
Nightmare in New Orleans
Do disasters destroy social cooperation?
People couldn't help contrasting the catastrophes. During the first disaster, New Yorkers remained calm, cooperative, and nonviolent; the crime rate plunged, and the city was overwhelmed with spontaneous acts of mutual aid. In the second emergency, the most basic social bonds seemed to disintegrate. As Newsweek put it, "the night was alight with fires, the pavement was alive with looters."
If you compare 9/11 with Hurricane Katrina, you'll provoke protests: Osama's attacks were awful, your critics will say, but they hit only one part of Manhattan and they left most of the city's infrastructure unscathed. But the two disasters I'm describing are the New York blackouts of 1965 and 1977. The first knocked out far more of the grid than the second, but communal ties seemed to strengthen rather than fray. The latter, by contrast, set off 25 hours of arson, looting, and chaos. The most striking quote in that Newsweek piece came from a rioter in Harlem. "We made a mistake in '65," he said. "But we're going to clean up in '77."
When disaster strikes, the results usually look a lot more like '65 than '77. The civic breakdown we saw in New Orleans is extremely atypical, not just next to smaller-scale emergencies such as 9/11 but next to some of the worst natural and technological catastrophes of recent history. "In the more modern, developed countries, looting is not a problem after disasters," says the sociologist E.L. Quarantelli, a co-founder of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware and one of the pioneers of the field. There are "some exceptions," he adds, but they're "very rare." More than a half-century of investigation has established a fairly firm pattern: After the cataclysm, volunteerism will explode, violence will be rare, looting will appear only under exceptional circumstances, and the vast majority of the rescues will be accomplished by the real first responders--the victims themselves.
• When an earthquake hit Tanghsan, China, in 1976, it was "probably the worst peacetime disaster of the century," writes Erik Auf der Heide, a medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in his contribution to the 2004 book The First 72 Hours: A Community Approach to Disaster Preparedness. About 250,000 people were killed, and almost every building in the city was destroyed--but "200,000 to 300,000 victims rescued themselves and then carried out 80% of the rescue of others." Such proportions were neither an aberration nor peculiar to earthquakes: Auf der Heide cites similar patterns following flash floods, tornadoes, and a deadly gas explosion.
• The Kobe quake of 1995, which killed 6,279 people, produced a reaction that was--to quote "Emergency Response: Lessons Learned from the Kobe Earthquake," a 1997 paper by Kathleen Tierney and James D. Goltz--"without precedent in Japanese society." Although volunteerism isn't nearly as widespread in Japan as it is in the United States, "most search and rescue was undertaken by community residents; officially-designated rescue agencies such as fire departments and the Self Defense Forces were responsible for recovering at most one quarter of those trapped in collapsed structures. Spontaneous volunteering and emergent group activity were very widespread throughout the emergency period; community residents provided a wide range of goods and services to their fellow earthquake victims, and large numbers of people traveled from other parts of the country to offer aid." Quarantelli says there wasn't a single authenticated case of looting.
• After the San Francisco quake of 1989, Stewart Brand wrote in Whole Earth Review that "volunteer rescuers in San Francisco's Marina District...outnumbered professionals three-to-one during the critical first few hours." (Although, he added, "it still wasn't enough.") According to Auf der Heide, most of the tremor's fatalities followed the collapse of the Cypress Expressway, and the rescue operation that followed was led by self-organizing samaritans. "These volunteers, coming from residences and businesses in the neighborhood or passing by on the street and freeway, performed some of the first rescues of trapped motorists," the Oakland Fire Department acknowledged in its earthquake report. "Using makeshift ladders, ropes, and even the trees planted beside the freeway, these volunteers scrambled up onto the broken structure to render first aid and help the injured and dazed to safety."
When looting does follow a disaster, most of it is done covertly by individuals or small groups snatching something when they think no one's looking, not by mobs acting openly. Half a century of research has revealed only four American exceptions: during the blackout of 1977; in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands following Hurricane Hugo in 1989; in and around Homestead, Florida, after Hurricane Andrew in 1992; and in New Orleans this year.
What happened after Hugo seemed so unusual that Quarantelli visited the island three times to investigate the chain of events. If you followed the news from New Orleans, the variables at work in St. Croix should sound familiar.
First, says Quarantelli, "it's a tourist area, and one thing that stood out is that the tourists that come there are very wealthy, while the native population is very, very poor." Second, "there's an underclass that engages in a lot of petty crime," and it includes juvenile gangs who launched the looting and "in a sense were simply acting on a larger scale than they normally do." Third, the police department was "ineffective, corrupt, and full of nepotism," and many officers joined in the larceny themselves. Put those factors together with the massive impact of the hurricane and the relative isolation of the island, and you had a recipe for riots.
Indeed, while events in New York, St. Croix, Homestead, and New Orleans differ radically from the usual behavior seen after catastrophes, they do resemble the sort of angry urban disorder that emerges not from without but from within. "In riots," explains Quarantelli, "looting is overt, it's socially supported, it's engaged in by almost everyone, and also it's targeted looting, in the sense that people break into alcohol stores and drug stores and things of that kind." That, he discovered, is what happened in St. Croix, and it is largely what occurred in the other three examples as well. "You could make the argument," he says of the '77 blackout, "that what happened there was less a technological disaster than simply the breakout of another riot": another Watts in another long, hot summer. The disparity between '77 and '65 reflected different social and economic conditions, just as St. Croix broke out in looting while other places battered by Hugo--Puerto Rico, the Carolinas--maintained social order.
"But even that's got to be put in context," Quarantelli concludes. "When all is said and done, while people paid attention to the looting and it certainly did occur, the pro-social behavior [in St. Croix] far outweighed the anti-social behavior." In fact, in every disaster he's studied, "the height of the emergency is when people are nicest to one another." In St. Croix, residents rescued their neighbors, gave shelter to the homeless, and shared their supplies; even the looting itself was often a matter of desperate but nonviolent citizens taking survival necessities, not gangs seizing luxury goods. (It's not even clear that it's properly theft to take, say, food that's bound to spoil before its owner can return to reclaim it.) Rumors of murders, armed robbery, and the like generally turned out to be unverified, exaggerated, or simply inaccurate.