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Volume XXXI • Number 4 March 2007 | Past Issues


Looting After a Disaster: A Myth or Reality?

This special article in the Disaster Myths series presents a point-counterpoint on the significance and prevalence of looting after disasters. Both authors were asked to answer, independently, a series of questions, including whether looting after disasters is a myth, what evidence supports that opinion, what previous research has established about looting, and how the myths (and realities) about looting influence disaster planning and response. While the previous articles in this series were meant to help dispel disaster myths, this article demonstrates the debate surrounding the controversial issue of looting and explores it in greater depth. Together these positions reveal the arguments and evidence for both sides of the debate. The editors hope that this point-counterpoint will provoke thought among those concerned with public safety and response in disasters.

The first author, E.L. Quarantelli, provides a historical overview of looting in disaster research to help elucidate the myth. The findings of previous disaster research are used to support the argument that looting, in fact, is not prevalent after disasters. In the end, there is a lack of evidence showing that this behavior is commonplace..

As a counterpoint, Kelly Frailing focuses on the events following Hurricane Katrina as evidence that looting is not a myth, but a reality of disasters. This position is also supported by experience during previous events, such as Hurricane Betsy, and by crime statistics.

The Myth and the Realities:
Keeping the “Looting” Myth in Perspective

Not all findings about looting reported by disaster researchers have been correctly understood. Important distinctions and qualifications about the phenomena have sometimes been ignored. Thus some demythologization of the looting myth is necessary.

The word “looting,” which comes from Sanskrit (lut, to rob) entered into European languages centuries ago to refer to the plundering undertaken by invading armies. But until recently, contemporary and historical accounts of disasters have not used the term. The first systematic professional use of the word appears to have been in a well-known National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study of the 1952 Arkansas tornado.

This modern usage probably developed because the U.S. military, which initially sponsored social science studies of disasters in the early 1950s, was concerned that, in the face of atomic bombing, America would socially disintegrate and people would engage in antisocial behavior. This ignored the findings of the strategic bombing surveys of wartime Germany and Japan, as well as of British studies of their civilian populations, which showed that looting was not a serious problem after massive air

Although no formal definition of looting was ever advanced by the earliest researchers, the NORC studies, field work by Harry Moore, and research supported by the National Academy of Sciences did look at looting phenomena, generally viewed informally as the illegal taking of property. The conceptual problem of studying looting has been compounded by the fact that “looting” is not a criminal category in American penal codes, except in a handful of states that have legally formalized the term relatively recently.

A consistent observation of the early studies was that instances of looting in the disasters examined (few of which occurred in metropolitan areas) were nonexistent or numerically very rare. This contrasted with a parallel observation that stories about looting were widespread in mass media accounts and among affected populations (58% reported hearing such stories and 6% thought they had been looted in the Arkansas disaster—a finding repeated over and over again in other studies).

In the 1960s, the many civil disturbances in large American cities were studied by disaster researchers. While to this day there is no agreement that riots should be conceptualized as conflict or willful disasters, the researchers found that looting was very pervasive in the riots studied and that the pattern of the looting behavior significantly differed. In natural disasters looting was very rare, covertly undertaken in opportunistic settings, done by isolated individuals or very small groups, and socially condemned. In contrast, looting in the riots was frequent, overtly undertaken, aimed at specific targets, participated in by very large numbers of individuals often in social networks, and was socially supported.

Semi-systematic studies of looting that continued into the 1970s in the United States did not challenge the overall picture that researchers had earlier developed. Mostly anecdotal reports in other developed countries were consistent with the American experience. This view was later generalized to the proposition that looting was not a problem in modern, developed countries and that in the rare instances when it occurred it had the distinct social characteristics found by the pioneer disaster researchers. However, absent systematic studies in developing countries to this day, and using mostly anecdotal accounts and mass media reports, the best that can be said is that major looting in developing countries sometimes appears on a massive scale, such as after the recent earthquake in Pakistan, but that at other times, such as after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, looting is an infrequent problem.

Furthermore, from the 1970s to the present day there have been occasional large-scale community crises after which researchers studied mass looting. One was the 1977 New York City blackout during which selective neighborhoods experienced massive looting illustrating the distinctive conflict situation pattern found in the 1960s. However, before “obvious” implications are drawn, one should note that similar blackouts in 1968 and in 2003 did not generate mass looting.

Crucial to any discussion of looting is what happened in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands when that city was hit by Hurricane Hugo in 1985. After that event, the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center undertook three different field studies, including a systematic quantitative survey of all businesses in the major shopping centers. The looting in St. Croix was massive. Not only were all consumer goods in sight taken, but there was even stripping of electrical and wall fixtures and of carpets. The largest mall (with about 150 shops) and two others were heavily hit, with less than 10% of the businesses reporting they were not totally looted.

The looting was initiated by pre-impact organized gangs of delinquent youths who first targeted stores with large quantities of consumer goods. A second stage occurred when other participants with noncriminal lifestyles began looting other kinds of stores (e.g., hardware stores). Finally, an even larger number of people joined, targeting stores with basic necessities (e.g., food supermarkets) and generally not looting items taken by the first two categories. Overall, the looting pattern was what earlier researchers had found in civil disturbances. However, contrary to widespread rumors, there was not a single authenticated case of the looting of private residences, schools, hotels, the one industrial complex with valuable equipment, or even resort restaurants. The looters used no physical force and, at worst, made only unfulfilled verbal threats.

A possible explanation for this atypical occasion of mass looting was that it involved a major catastrophe rather than a lesser disaster—with a concentration of disadvantaged persons exposed to everyday perceptions of major differences in lifestyles; a subculture tolerant of everyday minor stealing along with everyday organized youth gangs engaged in serious crime, such as drug dealing; and a local police force widely seen as corrupt and inefficient (early in the event, officers themselves had openly engaged in looting—not the usual pattern in civil disturbances).

A case can be made that what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina repeated, on a smaller scale, what had happened in St. Croix. The New Orleans event was smaller because in St. Croix a majority of the population probably participated in the looting, the looting did not last as long in New Orleans, and percentage-wise, far more stores were looted in St. Croix. But the overall pattern of mass looting, as well as the social conditions generating it, were the same in both cases.
To conclude, looting of any kind is rare in certain kinds of disasters in certain types of societies. The pattern of looting in natural disasters is different from what occurs in civil disturbances. There are occasional atypical instances of mass lootings that only emerge if a complex set of prior social conditions exist.

E.L. Quarantelli,
Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware

The Myth of a Disaster Myth:
Potential Looting Should Be Part of Disaster Plans

Hurricane Katrina was an unprecedented disaster that will have long-lasting effects on the people and the city of New Orleans. There are valuable lessons to be learned by emergency personnel, officials, and researchers that can aid planning for future disasters, whether natural or human-induced. Because of Katrina’s unique place in American disaster history, it is the main focus of the following discussion of the looting controversy.

Why Looting is no Myth

An argument in the disaster literature contends that looting does not occur after natural disasters, such as hurricanes or earthquakes, but that it does happen during civil disturbances. Looting during civil disturbances is construed as a message of protest against the conditions that facilitated the civil disturbance in the first place. (1) (2) An implication of this assertion is that when people take property after a natural disaster, they do so because they need those items to survive the aftermath. Police use the term “commandeer” to justify taking vehicles and other property, arguing that those items are essential to carry out their duties. The property, however, must be returned in good order. Taking property that has only a tenuous link to survival after a natural disaster—plasma televisions in a city without electricity; firearms, alcohol, and narcotics from businesses; and other items including silverware and jewelry from private residences—can legitimately be construed as looting. To make a distinction between natural disasters and civil disturbances on the basis of whether or not looting occurs is fatuous. Some examples in the literature describe looting after natural disasters: the earthquake that struck San Francisco in 1906; (3) the earthquake that struck Tangshan, China, in 1976; (4) the flood caused by Hurricane Agnes in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1972; (5) and the flood that devastated Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, in 1972. (6) Finally, there is substantial evidence of looting in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Current Research on Looting

The reports of looting in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were ubiquitous, almost to the point of being inescapable. Newspapers, the Internet, and especially 24-hour cable news networks reported widespread looting beginning shortly after Katrina’s landfall. In a study of the emergent behavior that followed the storm, researchers acknowledge that antisocial behavior occurred in New Orleans. However, they take care to characterize Katrina and its aftermath not as a “natural disaster,” but as a“catastrophe”—an overwhelmingly devastating event, which they contend allows for the emergence of both prosocial and antisocial behavior. Prosocial behavior, which those researchers maintain was far more prevalent than antisocial behavior, included activities such as rescuing those stranded by the storm and acquiring food and clean water. (7) The contention that prosocial behavior was far more prevalent than antisocial behavior after Katrina is not disputed here. To give just one example of prosocial behavior, the Eighth District New Orleans Police Department Homeless Outreach van, with its wheelchair lift, was used to rescue over 3,000 people in the five days after the storm.

Recasting Katrina as a catastrophe does not change the fact that looting occurred in New Orleans. Using burglary as a legitimate proxy variable for looting, researchers examined the socioeconomic conditions of the city and burglary rates surrounding three different storms. The economic conditions of the city fairly accurately predicted burglary rates before and after each storm. Hurricane Betsy, a powerful and devastating storm, struck New Orleans in 1965 when the city was close to its peak population and economically booming. The burglary rate was 9.0 per 100,000 in the month after Hurricane Betsy. In contrast, the burglary rate, as measured by police reports, in the month after Hurricane Katrina was 245.9 per 100,000. Moreover, the burglary rate after Katrina was calculated using only those losses that were definitely determined to be due to burglaries. A majority of the post-storm losses were coded by the police as “21K,” which indicated the losses could have been due either to the hurricane or to looting. It is conceivable, then, that the post-Katrina burglary rate may actually have been even higher than 245.9 per 100,000. (8)

It was not just the lack of social control that facilitated post-Katrina looting. It was the confluence of that factor and the historically evolving socioeconomic conditions that have produced a largely minimum-wage economy and a population of which nearly one-third was living in poverty. These conditions increased the probability of significant looting. Hurricane Katrina simply intensified and worsened the conditions of deprivation and crime that have plagued New Orleans for many years.

Influence of the Looting Myth in Disaster Planning and Response

To write off even the possibility of looting as a myth in the context of natural disasters is irresponsible at best. It is crucial that disaster response planners anticipate looting in the wake of natural disasters and design their responses accordingly. Many retailers in New Orleans, perhaps acting in their own best interests, freely gave food, water, and other needed supplies. In order to avoid property damage, a number of merchants left their doors unlocked to accommodate people’s needs. Some people were less than grateful and repaid the merchants’ generosity by sacking the establishments. An examination of loss claims by stores in post-Katrina New Orleans would provide a clearer picture not only of what was taken, but also of what volume of survival supplies are necessary for a disaster of that magnitude and of what types of businesses may be able to provide them most readily.

Anticipating looting is also a proper policy for law enforcement. When search and rescue operations are taken over by other first responders, there is less need for police involvement in these activities. Therefore, the police could concentrate their efforts on maintaining law and order and protecting property. There is nothing to be gained by private citizens’ taking the law into their own hands and endangering their lives in the process. Looting after disasters is not a myth. It is a well-documented phenomenon and to minimize it by recasting a disaster as a “catastrophe” is not useful. Disaster response planners need to anticipate and design effective responses to antisocial behavior, help meet people’s basic needs, and move as quickly as possible into the recovery phase of the disaster.

Kelly Frailing,
Loyola University, New Orleans

(1) Dynes, R., and E.L. Quarantelli. 1968. “What Looting in Civil Disturbances Really Means.” Trans-action 5(6): 9-14.
(2) Quarantellli, E. L. and R. Dynes. 1970. “Property Norms and Looting: Their Patterns in Community Crises.” Phylon: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture 31(2): 168-182.
(3) Morris, C. 2002. The San Francisco Calamity. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
(4) Zhou, D. 1997. “Disaster, Disorganization, and Crime.” Ph.D Dissertation. Department of Sociology, University at Albany, State University of New York. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International.
(5) Siman, B.A. 1977. “Crime during Disaster.” Ph.D. Dissertation. Department of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International.
(6) Erikson, K.T. 1972. Everything in its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster.
(7) Rodriguez, H., J. Trainor, and E.L. Quarantelli. 2006. “Rising to the Challenges of a Catastrophe: The Emergent and Prosocial Behavior following Hurricane Katrina.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604: 82-101.
(8) Frailing, K., and D.W. Harper. 2007. “Crime and Hurricanes in New Orleans.” In The Sociology of Katrina: Perspectives on a Modern Catastrophe, eds. D.L. Brunsma, D. Overfelt, and J.S. Picou, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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