Civil Liberties

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 only hit 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've seen in New Orleans is extremely atypical, not just next to smaller-scale emergencies like 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 disaster research. 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, social bonds will strengthen, 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," Dr. Erik Auf der Heide, a medical officer with the Centers for Disease Control, writes 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 volunteers. "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 occur, 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. According to Quarantelli, research has revealed only four American exceptions: during the blackout of '77; in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands following 1989's Hurricane Hugo; in and around Homestead, Florida, after 1992's Hurricane Andrew; 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've been following the news from New Orleans, the variables at work in St. Croix should sound familiar.

First, "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," says 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 essentially 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.

In New Orleans there have been some genuine first-hand accounts of violent assaults, but as Matt Welch has reported in Reason, the rumor mill has been working overtime as well. Meanwhile, we're also starting to hear stories of spontaneous cooperation on the ground—notably the heroic tales of Deamonte Love, the six-year-old boy who led five toddlers and a baby out of the flood zone, and Jabbar Gibson, the young man who commandeered an abandoned school bus, drove it to Houston with around 100 people aboard, and arrived there well in advance of the official convoy. Neighbors saved neighbors from the rising waters, volunteers patrolled their communities, and evacuees who owned vehicles gave lifts to people who didn't. Quarantelli is almost certain we'll learn that such cooperation and initiative greatly outnumbered the widely reported thefts.

There was one additional factor in Katrina that wasn't present in the other cases: what Quarantelli calls "the worst mishandled disaster I've ever seen in my life, and I've been studying disasters since 1949." The full story of what went wrong has yet to be uncovered, but it seems more and more clear that, far from working closely with volunteers and local authorities, the Department of Homeland Security—the giant new bureaucracy that absorbed the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2003—adopted a command-and-control approach that at times worked actively against the other responses. Anecdotes abound not just of well-qualified civilians being turned away from the disaster zone, but of public employees being poorly deployed, such as the 1,400 firefighters who were assigned to do community relations work. Worst of all were the squalid holding camps at the Superdome and the conference center, where authority was omnipresent but leadership was absent.

The local government clearly botched the initial evacuation of New Orleans, leaving hundred of empty buses to drown while carless citizens were stranded, but a deeper problem with the exodus might be the local initiative that was blocked. Fred Smith, the president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and, more to the point, a native Louisianan who's been monitoring events there as closely as he can, asks: "There were avenues in and out of the city—people could have been enlisted to come into the city to make pickups, and the problem could have been alleviated much earlier. America has cars and boats and buses and vans, but they weren't called on. In WWI, Paris was saved because taxis rushed French troops to the front. Why couldn't New Orleans have done the same?"

The most appalling allegations come from the leftist activists Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, who were attending a conference of emergency medical services workers in New Orleans when the hurricane struck. Their widely-circulated account is a litany both of inspiring self-organization on the ground and of astonishing official mistreatment and neglect. Among other things, they claim that a police officer broke up their embarrassingly situated encampment—it was adjacent to the command station—by lying that buses were waiting for them on the other side of the Greater New Orleans Bridge, and that armed sheriffs then blocked them from entering Mississippi on foot.

At that point, they say, some of them took direct action:

Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. Let's hear it for looting! A mile or so down the freeway, an Army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts.

Now—secure with these two necessities, food and water—cooperation, community and creativity flowered. We organized a clean-up and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom, and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas and other scraps. We even organized a food-recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).

This was something we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. But when these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community.

I can't vouch for their account, but I can attest to that final point. People do look out for each other in emergencies, even when other social bonds begin to break. The best response to a disaster will embrace that. The worst will work against it.