Sun on Katrina’s Lessons for Haiti

This is a guest post from Professor Lisa Sun at BYU Law School.  She is the author, along with Daniel Farber, Jim Chen, and Robert Verchick, of Disaster Law and Policy, from Wolters Kluwer.  Lisa writes:

News reports emerging from the devastation of the 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti last Tuesday suggest that street violence is growing and that local and international officials fear widespread looting, rioting, and the breakdown of civil order.  For example, the U.K. Telegraph reported on Saturday that  “[a]s anger and fears of violence grew amid desperate shortages of food, water, and medical supplies, bands of machete-wielding earthquake survivor [stet] yesterday roamed through the ruins of Port-au-Prince.”  The paper likewise reported incidents of violence against rescuers.

These media reports evoke similar reporting about New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in fall 2005.   Feverish reports of widespread looting and violence painted a picture of a city sinking, not only into the sea, but also into the depths of anarchy.  The New Orleans Police Chief told Oprah Winfrey that “little babies [were] getting raped” in the Superdome.  Numerous media outlets reported that Katrina survivors were firing on their would-be rescuers.   Widespread looting was reported with headlines such as “The looters, They’re Like Cockroaches.”

Eventually, most of this early reporting of widespread violence and lawlessness was discredited.  The New Orleans Time Picayune and other leading newspapers eventually concluded that most of the worst reported violence never occurred.  Most sociologists likewise believe that reports of violence were grossly overstated and that reports of looting were also overblown and failed to distinguish between “prosocial looting” – survivors scavenging needed food, water, and other critical supplies – and “antisocial looting” – survivors engaged in opportunistic crime.

Early, inflated reports of violence and looting often reflect a mythology about human behavior in the aftermath of disasters.  Most of us believe that humans faced with disaster devolve into their worst selves.   However, available sociological evidence suggests that antisocial behavior in the aftermath of disasters is the exception, rather than the rule.  What implications might this have for the current crisis unfolding in Haiti?

It is clear that the disaster myth of antisocial behavior contributed to inflated reporting of looting and violence in New Orleans, and that the inaccurate reporting distorted response priorities and delayed humanitarian relief from reaching Katrina’s survivors.  Mayor Ray Nagin, for instance, diverted what remained of the New Orleans police force from search-and-rescue to looting patrol, potentially costing more lives.  Delivery of food, water, and sanitary supplies to survivors who took refuge in the Superdome was similarly delayed while military escorts were assembled, based on fears that the food convoy would be met with gunfire (which never materialized).

The lessons of Katrina suggest that officials should be cautious about overemphasizing security at the expense of humanitarian relief.  The central insight of the disaster sociological research is that average citizens do not turn to opportunistic criminal behavior in the aftermath of most disasters, and that most looting that does occur is driven by desperation (and perhaps, eventually, anger in the face of perceived or real abandonment).   Moreover, looting is not necessarily a harbinger of more serious crime:  even in St. Croix after Hurricane Hugo where widespread looting occurred, that looting was not accompanied by extensive violence.

Yet, as with the Katrina response, some reporting already suggests that fear of looting, violence, and riots is limiting the speed and adequacy of humanitarian response in Haiti.  For example, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that emergency air drops of food and water were not employed because an “air drop is simply going to lead to riots as people go after that stuff.”  A Belgian medical team apparently evacuated one hospital, overflowing with injured earthquake survivors, based on security concerns.

Of course, the sociological evidence isn’t perfect, and most of it comes from smaller disasters in developed countries.  The existing body of sociological evidence is focused on the developed world, and does not speak clearly to a country in which 80% of people already lived in desperate poverty.  Widespread looting in developing countries has sometimes been observed.  Indeed, Haiti today obviously differs from post-Katrina New Orleans in several salient ways.  First, although Katrina wreaked horrific damage on the Gulf Coast, the damage only directly affected a small proportion of the U.S. in terms of both population and geographic scope.  In Haiti, estimates are that the earthquake has devastated at least one-third of the population (some three million people), left tens of thousands dead, and completely destroyed or heavily damaged the vast majority of the country’s infrastructure.  Second, while New Orleans had high levels of crime and street violence prior to Katrina, law and order has had a much more tenuous grasp on Haiti in recent decades.  Civil unrest is common and gangs run rampant on Haiti’s streets, frequently terrorizing citizens.   Third, reports suggest that thousands of prisoners incarcerated in Port-au-Prince’s main prison have escaped in the earthquake’s aftermath, which obviously substantially increases the risk of crime on Haiti’s streets.

Even in Katrina, more looting likely occurred than sociologists would have predicted.  Some sociologists have suggested that Katrina should be viewed as a catastrophe, rather than “merely” a disaster, and that in certain unique circumstances – total devastation of infrastructure, survivors’ lack of knowledge about when help will arrive, and preexisting class and racial tensions – looting may be more widespread.  One prior example was the widespread looting that engulfed St. Croix in Hurricane Hugo’s wake.  Haiti, of course, may eventually fit this mold.

While international responders should certainly be cognizant of security concerns, those concerns should not be allowed to cripple humanitarian response, particularly since past experience suggests that security concerns are often overblown and that delays in aid are likely both to deepen the desperation that may set the stage for looting and – more importantly – to deepen a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

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5 Responses

  1. dave hoffman says:

    A really interesting post. Would you mind posting a link to the available sociological evidence?

  2. Lisa Grow Sun says:

    Here’s an interesting overview of some of the sociological evidence as it relates to Katrina:

    My current research is focused on the consequences of disaster mythology for the legal structure of domestic disaster response. I’d be happy to email you a draft paper in a couple of weeks.

  3. Nate Oman says:

    CNN just aired a report about how the folks in Haiti have been remarkably orderly and how the UN insistence on security for all movements of aid materials has created a bottleneck in terms of getting aid to victims.

  4. Caramoan says:

    I pray for those people who have been injured in Haiti. the earthquake in Haiti is one of the word disasters this year. I just hope that they would be able to recover soon.

  5. Lisa Grow Sun says:

    For those who are interested in a more thorough consideration of the effect of disaster mythology on the U.S. legal system of disaster response, you may download my current article on SSRN here: