Lawlessness in New Orleans: Truth or Fiction?

Did you have doubts about some of the news reports emanating from New Orleans last month? Did you suspect that some reports were unbelievable or exaggerated? Did you doubt that the city rapidly descended into a Hobbesian world of brutal, unforgiving, lawless, looting, mayhem and violence? If so, there’s a good chance your suspicions were correct.

A BBC News article reports that "officials say many of the accounts were probably false or greatly exaggerated," and that "New Orleans police confirm they have had no official reports of rapes or murders in the days after the city was catastrophically flooded." Reports of tourists being raped have not been confirmed. An official of the Louisiana National Guard says of violent incidents: "For the amount of people in the situation, it was a very stable environment."

Although there is video of looting, reports of hospitals being looted were apparently false. Rumors and perhaps hoaxes and pranks based on calls from outside New Orleans may be responsible as well as the communications breakdown that occurred. But the media behaved in its usual fashion by failing to check up on these reports and by airing them repeatedly. Commercial air time is valuable, after all, and such stories attract audiences.

The BBC article, being balanced, ends up with commentary by those who doubt the doubters, who believe that perhaps both the media and officials are now covering up so as to bring tourists back to New Orleans. So where is the truth? Is it somewhere in between, or not?

When the State disappears, when the thin blue line falters, do individuals turn to savage behavior? Such a supposition defies an understanding of the human being. A well-behaved individual does not suddenly become a murderer or rapist. Until recently, the great majority of soldiers in wars did not discharge their weapons at the enemy, simply because they could not bring themselves to kill. In the 20th century as the knowledge of psychology has grown, soldiers have been trained and taught to fire and kill at a far higher rate. The training is long and strenuous. It is inconceivable that the average person will suddenly turn to violent crime when police are absent. Police are absent most of the time anyway! As for theft, that is more likely for anyone because the inhibition against it is less strong. It can be more easily rationalized.

On December 6th, 1917, two ships collided in Halifax harbor. One of them was loaded with 2,600 tons (2.6 kilotons) of high explosives, mostly lyddite with an explosive potential greater than TNT. The ground level explosion destroyed one square mile of Halifax with a force not exceeded by a man-made device until the 12.5-kiloton TNT-equivalent that devastated 5 square miles was exploded 1,885 feet above Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Michael J. Bird’s book The Town That Died recounts the whole Halifax story. Harrowing rescue efforts began immediately, offered by surviving crews of ships in the harbor. They lasted long into the night although hampered by rapidly spreading fire. The next two days brought a blizzard and gale, followed by heavy rain. Surviving neighbors pitched in without hesitation to help the injured. People ran in horror from the flames. "…service relief parties and civilian rescuers had begun to requisition vehicles of all kinds in which to transport the dead and the injured, to supplement those already volunteered by citizens…In the majority of cases those cars or wagons which were commandeered were handed over willingly…" Stretchers were improvised and all sorts of buildings turned into relief centers. Because supervisory people had died, "There was no one, therefore, to co-ordinate the vast amount of work and there was little organisation among the staff." Women volunteers assisted surgeons working around the clock. A soldier-paymaster "got a crowd of men together and we raided stores and brought out a pile of greatcoats as there were no blankets left." Militia battalions proved invaluable working with police to supply and pitch tents. They worked "for seventy-two hours, without rest and without any defaulters."

A witness to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire is cited in a recent Harper’s article as seeing "no running around the streets, or shrieking, or anything of that sort." He observed people who "walked calmly from place to place, and watched the fire with almost indifference, and then with jokes, that were not forced either, but wholly spontaneous." Compare Halifax: "[Cadet] Brock at first found himself seized by an almost uncontrollable desire to laugh." In San Francisco, "even the selfish, the sordid and the greedy became transformed that day — and, indeed, throughout that trying period — and true humanity reigned."

A diary of a Halifax resident reports looting and theft of rings from the dead. Police and militia on patrol had orders to shoot looters. However, Bird tells us that no story of a looter being shot was substantiated. A Toronto newspaper carried an account of a looter who was shot, but the Halifax Herald attacked the story as due to "the exercise of the inventive genius of some of our visiting correspondents." Bird reports on "wild rumours that spread like forest fires." And "Later doctors were to compile and analyse the hallucinations that many" experienced after the explosion.

Money and help poured in from everywhere, especially the United States. The Public Safety Committee of Massachusetts unbidden sent a large quantity of glass and putty and 25 glaziers. A firm of chemists in Philadelphia sent much needed anti-pneumonia serum. Trains from Boston and New York City carried cots, medical supplies, and doctors and social workers.

In Halifax, rents rose astronomically and truckmen charged very high prices for transport. The "deputy mayor issued a proclamation warning profiteers that they would be dealt with under the full provisions of the law." That has not changed either. Prostitutes did a brisk business among the many workers brought in to construct new houses. "The prohibition law was not relaxed in any way during the crisis," and the media inveighed against booze and demon rum.

For about 50 years, sociologists have produced a body of case and field studies of hundreds of disasters. After events like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, they hurry to the scene to collect and record all sorts of information. Their findings lead to broad generalizations about how human beings behave before, during, and after disasters. While one can reasonably expect a good deal of variation in the responses to disasters, due to factors like people’s experience, preparation, and knowledge, warning time, and the roles of authorities, the Halifax case is more or less typical of what disaster sociologists find.

How do sociologists find that humans behave when disasters strike? I’ll select a few findings from a lengthy review article by two of the foremost experts, Russell Dynes and E. L. Quarantelli. In brief:

1. "When disasters do occur, individuals react very well." People individually and groups know what they are doing and why, although to outside observers, their actions may appear confused and chaotic. "Survivors do so much prior to and separate from the actions and directions of officials that it sometimes leads emergency personnel to mischaracterize the activities as confused and non-goal directed…" The survivors "show little deviant behavior." Despite the deep beliefs of everyone from the ordinary person to the emergency workers to the government officials that panic and anti-social behavior are unleashed by the disaster, these simply do not happen in any above-normal frequency. "While stories and rumors about such behavior are almost universal, actual instances are often nonexistent, very low in relative frequency, and surface only…" in rare circumstances.

2. Almost everywhere there is a group of organizations that plans for disasters, such as police, fire, hospitals, and utilities. However, they have several shortcomings. They underestimate the severity of disasters and that these disasters may severely affect their own personnel and operations as well. They also focus too much on technological matters of equipment and not enough on social matters, for example, having to work far more closely with non-professionals. And they are not well-prepared to manage the coordination and other problems that arise that pre-planning does not foresee or contemplate.

Basically the authors say that the professionals and governmental bodies are under the illusion that they will be able to carry on and handle things in a severe disaster because they are used to handling minor emergencies. However, a disaster is different in kind, not just in scope. Improvisation will be required to meet problems that can’t be planned for.

3. After a disaster, organizations don’t alter their procedures very much. "The talk seldom gets translated into concrete actions."

4. The media rely on their usual sources. "One consequence of a reliance upon traditional sources is that the actions of nontraditional sources slip through the u2018news net.’ The activities of volunteers and of emergent groups and organizations that are not part of the normal u2018beat’ system or regularly courted for news tend to be ignored in mass media accounts." What happens is that the press tends to talk to officials, and their picture is incomplete, inaccurate and often biased. Improvised search and rescue may be rescuing thousands of people, but the press will focus on a few official dog teams that uncover some dead or injured.

5. The media, especially television, "is prone to perpetuating disaster myths. For example, although panic and looting constitute only a small proportion of the total television content, their presentation is very dramatic and consistent with the mythologies."

David Glenn writes:

"A prime example of spontaneous cooperation was the extraordinarily successful evacuation of Lower Manhattan during the September 11 attacks. James M. Kendra, an assistant professor of emergency administration and planning at the University of North Texas, estimates that nearly half a million people fled Manhattan on boats and he emphasizes that the waterborne evacuation was a self-organized volunteer process that could probably never have been planned on a government official’s clipboard."

"Various kinds of private companies, dinner-cruise boats, people with their own personal watercraft, the Coast Guard, the harbor pilots in very short order, they managed to organize this evacuation," Mr. Kendra said.

So how typical or atypical were the events in New Orleans? We have good reason to begin by accepting as typical the behaviors found in numerous other disasters, namely, individuals generally behave well; the media sensationalizes; rumors abound; officials tend to mismanage; search and rescue are the joint effort of spontaneous volunteers and local groups such as police, fire, medical and militia; and the police and other officials in their zeal to maintain law and order tend to misread what individuals are up to and hamper them. There is looting and some additional crime in disasters, but most people are law-abiding.

Then we can adjust that picture for the factors in New Orleans that may have created deviations from the norm. Police did not and rarely do have the manpower to handle such a large disaster, but whereas Halifax had a local militia to commandeer resources and patrol the streets to prevent looting or to take resources where available and distribute them, the local Louisiana National Guard was shorthanded, having been sent to Iraq. This may have led to above-average looting as compared with other similar situations.

A typical on-the-ground account of two paramedics tells us that volunteers carried out all sorts of rescue operations without official supervision. This is typical.

Ordinarily there is a large and rapid influx of supplies and rescue materiel after a disaster. It happened in Halifax. This did not occur in New Orleans, and this provides another reason why looting may have been above-average. Why supplies did not get through in volume has to be one of the most important questions that should be answered.

Along with and related to that issue is the bizarre behavior of the law-enforcement and official personnel, whether city, FEMA, state, police, military, or National Guard. Rather than instinctively helping people escape who wanted to, or helping provide food and water to those in need, or utilizing available resources, by all accounts there was instead hostile, counterproductive, and uncooperative behavior from those who are supposed to be helpful. Desperate people became the enemy to be controlled, threatened, and herded or prevented from moving.

In time and with the publication of objective accounts, we might get a clearer, a more complete and well-rounded picture, than is now available of how New Orleans compares to other disasters.

I have my own unsupported, possibly harebrained, suspicion about official behavior, which is that in today’s America, men and women who are employed in our fire, police, rescue and such are paralyzed by and held in check by timid bosses and managers who are afraid to show any common sense initiative. This of course filters down and is taught to the workers below. Everyone becomes afraid to do anything but what the bureaucratic rulebook says for fear of overstepping some arcane, possibly politically correct or politically-favored, rules that have been put into place. "We can’t do that, because…" The real reason is fear of being sued or of losing one’s job. In a pinch, they won’t improvise out of fear of overstepping some bounds, or because the rules say that there is some other authority that needs to be consulted. I do not think Americans have suddenly been afflicted with a mass dose of terminal stupidity, but the effect of endless bureaucratic regimentation and knot-tying has the same effect. Otherwise intelligent people abandon common sense and act like morons, mindlessly enforcing rules that are inapplicable to the situation they are faced with. Ordinary individuals, having no such compunctions, do what has to be done.

Of course, we cannot and should not ignore the gulf between white and black America that is part of the disaster. Just after Katrina struck, I read a news report whose link disappeared shortly thereafter. A white New Orleans city official talked about his board’s planning for hurricanes. Someone on the all-white board raised the question of evacuation of the poorer mostly black population that did not have cars. There was silence around the table. Then the discussion moved on to other matters. This is, if not racism, indifference, irresponsibility to all citizens, and a lack of black representation in the power structure. It is lack of participation by black people in this part of the city’s structure. This is a real weakness in America’s civil society.

Decades ago there were many thriving black communities from Washington, D.C. to Seattle to Tulsa to Indianapolis to Quakertown and many other cities, north and south, east and west. Did they participate to a greater extent in their communities and cities? I do not know, but sooner or later money and votes talk; and prosperity of the black community would break racial walls down if given a peaceful chance. This was not to be. The racism of envious white workers and businessmen, the racism of trade unions and of minimum wage laws, the racism of the KKK, etc., along with the effects of the Great Depression, the effects of 50 years of America’s Welfare State, the effects of busing, the effects of urban renewal schemes and public housing and highways that broke communities into pieces, the effects of draconian drug laws and public education manned by teachers’ unions — all these have damaged but not destroyed the black community. They have created even worse segregation than ever, with environments of crime, ignorance and despair that white people fear to enter.

The knowledge that comes out of disaster studies contrasts sharply with common myths about disasters that are perpetuated by the media and often by government officials. The odds are that the reports of rape and murder in New Orleans were exaggerated. The odds are that looting was more than average, but understandable given the circumstances present. The odds are that most ordinary people from all walks of life behaved lawfully. The odds are that the media provided entertainment as usual, not in the interest of accuracy or social responsibility but for audience. We already know that many government officials behaved incompetently and ineptly. The odds are that some behaved criminally.

The assistance of Dorothy Gruber-Rozeff is gratefully acknowledged.