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Disaster mythology:

looting in New Orleans

Mark Constable

Chiswick, Australia





Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine the many reports of looting during the response operation in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and assess these reports against literature which suggests that looting during natural disasters is a myth. Design/methodology/approach – Media reports of looting from the days following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans are compared with previously published evidence of disaster mythology. Questions are raised regarding the legitimacy of these reports and the role of such reports is assessed along with the role that media agencies play in disaster planning and response. Findings – Media reports of looting in New Orleans appear to be mainly repeated second-hand accounts. It is likely that there was in fact no looting in the traditional sense. The paper suggests what really happened in terms of theft and poses potential reasons as to the cause thereof. A clear definition of looting is suggested for emergency managers to use in order to separate acts of survival from pure criminal acts. Originality/value – The paper highlights the dangers for emergency managers in believing common disaster myths. It is a timely reminder of the existence disaster mythology against a recent disaster in a developed country.

Keywords Natural disasters, Myths, Emergency measures, United States of America

Paper type Viewpoint


A typical Atlantic hurricane season features on average approximately ten “named”

storms. Of these, six will become hurricanes. 2004 saw previous meteorological records smashed when Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne shattered vast areas of Florida, the Carolinas, and Alabama, killing more than 100 people (Rigg, 2006, p. 10). In August 2005, 12 months later, Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane over the Gulf

of Mexico, proceeded north, becoming a slow moving Category 3 storm as it passed

over New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Over 1,400 people were killed during the storm or during the subsequent flooding which covered over 80 per cent of New Orleans. At the time of writing, up to one million people have been left displaced and the damage bill is estimated somewhere in the vicinity of US $100 billion (St Onge and Epstein, 2006). A total of 90,000 square miles of coastland along the Gulf of Mexico, covering an area the size of Great Britain, suffered major infrastructure damage, if not total devastation (Rigg, 2006, p. 10). In the days following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana reports flooded all media formats of the looting that was occurring in areas of New Orleans. Yet one needs to go no further than the works of Drabek (1996), Dynes (1994) and Quarantelli (1980) to see long since published evidence, based on research and observations, that mass scale looting falls squarely within the realms of disaster mythology. So what happened in New Orleans? Was this the exception that proves the rule or was this media hype? What influence did disaster mythology have on decision makers in New Orleans in August 2005?

have on decision makers in New Orleans in August 2005? Disaster Prevention and Management Vol. 17

Disaster Prevention and Management Vol. 17 No. 4, 2008 pp. 519-525 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited


DOI 10.1108/09653560810901764




Any emergency response presents us with opportunities to learn from mistakes made and it is worthwhile for emergency managers from around the world to consider the lessons to be learned from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As with any disaster, there were many successes and failures in the response to Hurricane Katrina. It seems timely to remind emergency managers of the existence of “disaster mythology”. In the case of New Orleans, we have a clear reminder of the myth of looting following natural disasters. Emergency managers need to stay aware of the potential for media “beat ups” during emergencies and must have an understanding of how disaster mythology may effect the decision making process. A thorough understanding of disaster mythology will help guard against making ill-informed decisions both before disasters strike and during times of crisis.

Disaster mythology in New Orleans Beliefs held towards “disaster mythology” by the public and emergency managers alike have been the subject of much research over the last few decades. Particular myths including those of mass panic, mass looting, imposed martial law, mass evacuations, “disaster shock”, and general antisocial behaviour (such as criminal activities) have been proven to be exactly that – myths (Drabek, 1996, p. 1). Yet surveys and research have shown that a high percentage of the general public and indeed of many officials engaged in emergency and disaster management believe such myths to be true. Without a doubt emergency planners with little experience will often base their plans on such “conventional wisdom” as mythology rather than knowledge of actual events and associated behaviours (Dynes, 1994, p. 141). Why are these myths held to be true by so many and in what way did they effect the planning and response operation to Hurricane Katrina? Drabek (1996, p. 1) has suggested that people learn these falsehoods of disaster behaviour from their peers and generally have such beliefs confirmed by the media, who he found did report accurately on specific facts but also reinforced typical disaster mythology. Stallings (1990, p. 80) cites Short, stating that news organisations are one of the most significant actors involved in the social construction of risk. Quarantelli studied 36 disaster films, finding that they “either perpetuate the wrong ideas according to scientific studies or present empirically incorrect facts” (Drabek, 1996, p. 3). The media will amplify the impact of the event to suit their own interests: the bigger the destruction, the bigger the news (van den Eynde and Veno, 1999, p. 70). The media plays an important role in defining the situation, highlighting the difference between what is really going on and what is brought to bear on the decision-makers, emergency workers, the people in the stricken areas and the public (Rosenthal, 1998, p. 157). Conducting an internet search for news articles regarding looting in News Orleans, reveals many results; however, many links are third-party commentaries and many news organisations repeat information originally reported by different agencies. MSNBC (2005), Fox News (Goldblatt et al. , 2006), ABC News (2005), and the Sydney Morning Herald (2005) web sites each quoted verbatim a passage originally reported by the Associated Press on 1 September 2005 (Nossiter, 2006) as did no less than 400 other news web sites in early September 2005. With the same basic story repeated so many times around the world, it is no wonder that a belief in disaster mythology such as looting becomes so ingrained in the minds of emergency managers and the community.

Interviews in 1980 with 55 emergency management officials regarding disaster mythology found that 76 per cent believed in the myth of looting; 85 per cent believed that martial law would need to be imposed following a disaster; and 54 per cent believed that there would be an increase in the rate of crime (Drabek, 1996, p. 1). If the emergency management officials and politicians involved in the response to Katrina had similar beliefs, then these research findings would certainly suggest a reason for their actions in response to the hurricane. But what is the cost to life? It is probable that this is immeasurable, but with 1500 police pulled away from rescue operations on the 31 August and ordered to concentrate on the “looting problem” (Associated Press, 2005), who knows how many lives may have been lost in New Orleans? And what is the social cost of such actions within an already devastated community? Is it possible, with a well developed belief in looting, that emergency managers and the unaffected public may come to despise those disenfranchised by a natural disaster because of a fear of looting masses? So was New Orleans an exception to the findings of so much research or are the stories of such wide spread looting just a media beat up? Certainly following the impact of Hurricane Katrina there were hundreds of media reports of looting and crime occurring in New Orleans. How many of the reports were true is something that we will not know until research and surveys are conducted of those within the city who were present at the events reported by the world’s media. We must, however, consider two very important issues: first, media agencies do sensationalise their reports, and second, we need to examine what is meant by “looting”. In selecting events to report (and not to report), interviewing certain experts who interpret these events, and in distributing news products, news organisations play a large role in creating a fundamental element of public discourse (Stallings, 1990, p. 80). Private media agencies need to sell papers or gain television ratings. How do they do this? By providing the public with exciting stories which are amazing to read or exciting to see. When was the last time you read or saw a story about a disaster response where everything was going smoothly and nothing went wrong? The public at large watch, listen, and read about the likely causes of an unsettling event and hope to be reassured about the absence of future harm (Stallings, 1990, p. 81). Hewitt (1998, p. 87) describes the exploitation of tragic images and the heartrending words by officials and media for the promotion of their own organisations as “disaster pornography,” and he suggests that it must be fought against by listening to the oral testimony of disaster victims in order to gain a true social understanding of the situation in question. Rosenthal (1998, p. 157) continues this theme by suggesting that from outright sensationalism to self-imposed censorship, the “mediazation” of disasters underscores the subjective mode of such information. Drabek (1996, p. 3) refers to the sensationalised captions next to pictures in the book The Complete Story of the Galveston Horror highlighting examples such as: “Vandals robbing the dead”; “Shooting vandals at work on the dead bodies in Galveston after the disaster”; “Survivors insane over the loss of homes and dear ones”; “Survivors, nearly starved, ransacking a grocery store for food.” Further examples can be seen in media reports of New Orleans with headlines such as “Widespread looting” (Mattingly et al., 2005), “Witnesses: New Orleans cops among looters” (Griffin and Phillips, 2005) and







“Chaotic conditions in New Orleans “(CBS, 2005). The use of emotive language in media reports sways the opinions of the reader or viewer and limits ones ability to make informed decisions on the contents of the reports. What is looting and did it really occur in New Orleans? The word “looting” conjures images of masses of people throwing bricks through the windows of store fronts and ransacking these stores of everything of value. According to the The Concise Oxford Dictionary , 2005 to loot is to: “steal goods from, especially during a war or riot.” Did stealing occur? Certainly, people were witnessed removing items they presumably did not pay for from stores of which they likely gained unlawful access to; but what was taken? According to most reports stolen items generally amounted to foodstuffs, pharmaceutical goods and clothing items (Goldblatt et al., 2006; Mattingly et al. , 2005), things that would generally be considered necessary for an individual’s survival. In order to understand what occurred in New Orleans we need to assess the social context in which it occurred. People, for the most part, were not stealing items from stores for their own personal gain or profit (such as colour televisions) but were taking items, equipment and food essential for their survival. And why were they doing this? Most likely because the response from the government was too slow and/or inadequate for the communities personal needs at that time. The goods taken, particularly in the case of food taken from abandoned stores, would have likely rotted if it was not taken and consumed and would have therefore added to the overall health risk. In Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, a human’s physiological needs take the highest priority forming the base of all human requirements. These base needs are chiefly: the need to breathe; the need for water; the need to eat; the need to dispose of bodily wastes; the need for sleep; the need to regulate body temperature; and the need for protection. When any of these needs are not met an individual will de-prioritise all other desires and capacities. Physiological needs can control thoughts and behaviours, can cause people to feel sickness, pain and discomfort (Huitt, 2004). These so-called “looters” most likely found themselves with little or no possessions, no shelter and no food or clean water and so their basic survival instinct to seek shelter and sustenance took over. Did people steal? In the strict sense of the law, most likely, yes. However we, the unaffected, need to reflect on when an individual’s right to survive under horrific circumstances out weighs laws imposed in times of social normality. It is unlikely that anyone would think badly of a soldier, stuck behind enemy lines during a war, for stealing food from the local population in order to survive. So why would anyone think differently of any of the residents of New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina? Defining an emergency is a complex social process, requiring information about the status of the present compared with the circumstance of the past and drawing conclusions about the consequences of those discrepancies (Dynes, 1994, p. 146). This is the challenge and the problem for all emergency managers and social commentators to address before rushing to judgement on the “looting” in New Orleans. In criticising the military model of response, Dynes (1994, p. 147) highlights several organisational directions, assumptions and consequences. He emphasises the assumptions made by response agencies that victims are passive and cannot “help” themselves and that any spontaneous and “unplanned” behaviour [by non agency staff] is evaluated as being dysfunctional, misdirected and harmful. When considering

these assumptions and the concept that a reliance on “conventional wisdom” [instead of knowledge] which will treat any nonconforming experience as irrelevant (Dynes, 1994, p. 141) against the actions of hungry and homeless victims of Katrina, it is possible to see what drove the decisions of emergency management staff to redirect police away from rescue efforts and towards law enforcement activities. In order to ensure that emergency managers do not act on conventional wisdom alone we need to set clearly defined parameters of what constitutes “looting”. Most importantly any classification of looting should consider the malicious intent of the individual or groups actions. One possible characterisation may be to define looting as:

An act of robbery, taking advantage of disastrous circumstances, that is performed purely for self-gain and is conducted with criminal intent.

It is vital that we realise that certain actions, which would be considered “illegal” during normal circumstances, when aimed at ensuring the survival of oneself and others during catastrophic circumstances should be considered, at the time, as no more wrong than an ambulance running a red light whilst en route to an car accident! It is also important that emergency managers and the media alike differentiate between acts of survival and acts of civil unrest or malicious crime. None of this is to say that crime did not occur in the wake of Katrina, nor that crime does not occur during any number of emergency situations. There were several reported robberies, assaults, rapes, shootings and car-jackings (BBC News, 2005; Goldblatt et al. , 2006) during the response operation. However, statistically, these types of events are likely to have occurred during a non-emergency situation, with New Orleans having a crime rate roughly double the national average for the USA (CityRating, 2002). It must be remembered that, emergencies do not suddenly create Jekylls out of Hydes (Dynes, 1994, p. 150). With this disaster mythology in mind, it is of interest to consider whether official reactions to looting was based on solid evidence or were they simply a reaction to sensationalised media reporting and hearsay? It is likely that the official response to “looting” in New Orleans was based on the widespread belief that antisocial behaviour is extremely common and threatens the re-establishment of “normality” (Dynes, 1994, p. 147). Or was it something more? Was the claim of mass looting a deliberate action on the part of the New Orleans Government to ensure the US Federal Government, a government known to be “tough on crime”, would activate the National Guard in response and thus New Orleans would receive an enormous boost to its struggling response and recovery manpower, albeit under false pretences? If this was the case, and we may never know for sure, what damage may have been done to the attitudes of future emergency managers and their responses to natural disasters around the world?




Conclusion Hurricane Katrina took more lives in the USA than nearly any storm in living memory and it caused more damage in terms of cost than any other storm in US recorded history. History and research have shown us that those who have the least control over life events (such as the poor and the powerless) are the most likely to be negatively affected in an emergency situation or disaster (van den Eynde and Veno, 1999, p. 172) and it seems that the situation in New Orleans is no different. Particular failures in the




response operation led certain residents of New Orleans to take their survival into their own hands by sourcing supplies of food, water and clothing by breaking into shops. The fiction author Quinnell (1981, p. 31) wrote:

Hunger and necessity are poor teachers of morality. A society that cannot provide the basics of life does not get its laws obeyed.

There is a lesson in this quote in terms of the necessity of any government to ensure that the basic needs of a community are always met and that provisions are in place in case of disaster to ensure the continuation of the supply of basic needs. A failure to recognise media reports of looting as disaster mythology may have cost the lives of hundreds of people and certainly limited the speed of aid delivery to those in the most need following the hurricane. Actions taken to aid in ones survival should not be labelled as looting. The actions of individuals during times of significant social disturbance should be examined within the context of the surrounding events. Those involved in emergency management should consider the definition of looting in a natural disaster and should design responses based on social welfare, not violence.

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Corresponding author Mark Constable can be contacted at: markconstable@optusnet.com.au

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