How people really behave during disasters

If you expect a massive earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis to lead to panic in the streets and every-man-for-himself struggles, then you've probably been surprised by the Japanese response to their country's woes. But, before you start waxing philosophical about how different the Japanese are from your home country, consider what's known about how people—people all over the world—actually behave in disasters. Hint: A lot of the stories you've heard about crime and mayhem are either myths, or overblown accounts that don't represent the vast majority. The London Independent's Johann Hari writes for the Huffington Post:

In her gorgeous book A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster, Rebecca Solnit shows how this is how almost everybody responds to disaster, across continents and across contexts. When power grids are destroyed and city grids demolished, social grids light up.

This is so cross-cultural -- from Haiti to New Zealand -- that it is probably part of an evolved instinct inherent to our species, and it's not hard to see why. We now know that 60,000 years ago, the entire human race was reduced to a single tribe of 2000 human beings wandering the savannahs of Africa. That was it. That was us. If they -- our ancestors -- didn't have a strong impulse to look out for each other in a crisis, you wouldn't be reading this now.

Yet there are a few examples stubbornly fixed in the popular imagination of people reacting to a natural disaster by becoming primal and vicious. Remember the gangs "marauding" through New Orleans, raping and even cannibalizing people in the Super-Dome after Hurricane Katrina? It turns out they didn't exist. Years of journalistic investigations showed them to be racist fantasies. They didn't happen. Yes, there was some "looting" -- which consisted of starving people breaking into closed and abandoned shops for food. Of course human beings can behave atrociously - but the aftermath of a disaster seems to be the time when it is least likely.

This information is essential for knowing how to respond to disasters. There is a fear that the Japanese government is with-holding information about the dangers of the nuclear meltdown because they don't trust the people to react sensibly and calmly. There is no way of knowing, yet, whether this is true. But understanding this crucial history should guide the government to tell the truth and trust the people. As Solnit puts it: "If you imagine that the public is a danger, you endanger the public."

That analysis also fits with Amanda Ripley's 2008 book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes. So far, I've only read parts of this book—enough to make me completely rethink a short story I was planning out for my writing club—but it's very high on my list of books I must read in their entirety asap.

This seems to be one of those places where "common sense" simply isn't. On the whole, humans respond to disasters more like the Japanese people responded to this one, and less like what we imagine from movies and nightmares.


  1. Perhaps real troublemakers are simply murdered, and their deaths are counted as “accidental”. Many people are alive today only because the Law keeps their neighbors from topping them.

  2. The truth about New Orleans just doesn’t seem to make much headway against the racist myths, particularly those of shots fired at rescue helicopters despite the helicopter crews themselves loudly and unanimously saying it never happened. What kind of despicable creatures crave those myths so much?

  3. I think it depends entirely on the time scale involved. In the first few days everyone pulls together. If, within a week, there are not adequate minimal services available (food, water, shelter) things begin to change and the more selfish individuals begin to act out of self-interest instead of for the group.

    In cases where things are left in a bad state long enough, then you get the horror stories.

    1. Certainly you’re right that after time desperation erodes communitarian motivations, but don’t discount the impact of the myths themselves. Henry Glover’s murder by New Orleans police, and the horror at Gretna bridge were events that would not have happened without context of fear and panic caused by the misinformation.

  4. I lived in San Francisco during the 1989 earthquake. What I remember is that everyone was exceptionally kind, polite, and cooperative for about three days.

  5. This article came just in time. I was just frothing at the mouth a little a few minutes ago seeing several variations on this stupid political cartoon which is gross on so many levels.

    1. What does that cartoon even mean? I can’t figure it out. Japan’s earthquake is America’s heartbreak? Huh?

      1. Ah, guess what, Slate cartoon urls are not persistant. Surprise surprise.

        I was actually referring to the cartoon that’s one “Next” of that heart one (which I don’t understand at all), of a guy watching the Japan earthquake on TV and saying “It reminds me of Katrina, just without all the looting and gunfire.”

        I saw two other cartoons on the exact same theme.

  6. To continue: after about three days, in many areas you could pretend that things were normal despite significant damage to infrastructure (Bay Bridge closed, I-880 through Oakland collapsed, lots of damaged buildings in the Marina District), so and increasing number of people did just that.

  7. “The Unthinkable” is well worth your time. It’s a sort of unicorn chaser to any disaster. Most people are basically decent, and that doesn’t change in hard times. The main human failing is not an unwillingness to act, or a desire to act selfishly, but inaction borne of shock and disbelief. And as the author points out, that’s something you can train to counteract.

  8. Gogol Bordello even sang about this phenomenon in Oh No:

    Sometimes when facing common trouble
    When whole town is screwed
    We become actually human
    Act like Prometheus would
    Suddenly there is more humor
    And a party tabor style
    People ringing one another
    “Yo man, how was your blackout?”
    1. Yeah, GB! That’s exactly the song I thought of when I saw this story today!

      “Oh yeah Oh no, it doesn’t have to be so
      It is possible any time anywhere
      Even without any dough
      Oh yeah Oh no, it doesn’t have to be so
      Forces of the creative mind are unstoppable!”

  9. jjsaul, I lived in New Orleans and had the opportunity to talk to a number of people about their post-Katrina stories. I did speak to someone who claimed to be shooting — but they weren’t shooting AT the helicopters at all; they were shooting to draw attention to themselves. The helicopters had passed them several times over, and they were at wit’s end; they were not directing their shots at the helicopter, they were not trying to down the helicopter at all. They were trying to send out a signal — the same way someone would pop out a signal flare if they were stranded — so that they would be found and picked up.

    And thankfully, they were.

  10. I’m glad someone has researched this and made a convincing case for it- the year after Katrina I lived in a transient camp for volunteers and displaced residents, and it was one of the most harmonious living experiences of my life. (And this was living with a population of about 200 burned out hippies and very low-income residents – the sort typically blamed for civil unrest in times of trial.) The biggest discord was caused by minor theft and the occasional slacker taking extra days off. In the grand scheme of things, they were very minor and the most pressing concerns for our security staff (unironically dubbed the “peace patrol”) was making sure campers didn’t fall asleep with candles burning in their tents.
    The politicians, judges and police were corrupt, the national guard were unnecessarily rough, the water and soil was toxic, we cooked over propane burners in a parking lot, i spent almost every day sliding around in slime while clearing debris and swinging a sledge hammer inside buildings that had been soaked with flood waters and sealed up to rot, didn’t sleep in a bed for nearly a year, was up every day at 4 am, and almost never got a hot shower; yet, it was possibly the best year of my life due the constant, unwarranted kindness, generosity and solidarity of nearly everyone i encountered.

  11. I seem to remember something about people on a bridge shooting at other people trying to cross. Didn’t the shooters have badges..?

  12. Note also that post-apocalypse stories always involve survivors banding together, and always run out of narrative steam before the apocalypse is a few weeks old.

  13. I’ve read about this kind of thing before.

    Stewart Brand’s painful recollection of ordinary citizens helping out after the 1989 SF quake comes to mind.

    We are a lot more decent and competent than we give ourselves credit for.

    This rubs some people the wrong way. The kind of folks who fantasize about being heroes, who care more about their Go Bags than their neighbors, and who casually use terms like “sheeple.”

  14. The main thing the Tokyo Government is withholding are things they don’t know and refuse to speculate about.

    Quite unlike the western press, they don’t take license to make s**t up when nothing as yet can be known about something that is going on. They also confirm their information before releasing it.

    All of those are things that people nowadays are simply not used to. Which self-respecting newspaper would forego a front page news story of something dramatic going on right now, even if very little is known about exactly what it is that is going on? They have to fill the pages that they write their story on somehow. But since so little actual information exists, theoretical/technical background is only thought to annoy the readership unless it is delivered in minute doses and researching the HUGE heaps of publicly available scientific papers on just about everything you might want to know (even without asking any “experts”) is apparently out of fashion, there is bound to be lots and lots of implicit speculation and pure humbug in the press.

    No wonder then, that the contrast between the proliferation of useless gibberish from the press and the relatively small amount of confirmed information from governmental agencies, creates room for speculation and conspiracy theories.

  15. From “Maus”:

    “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week. Then you could see what it is, friends!”

    1. From “Maus”:

      “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week. Then you could see what it is, friends!”

      Not 100% true. Nazi Germany was a man-made catastrophe that pitted human against human for insane reasons. I consider that kind of word to be so devoid of rules, paranoia is valid. Ditto wih the communist USSR and North Korea. It takes decades to shed that paranoia, but it is all caused by humans versus humans for reasons that are nationally dogmatic.

      But from my own experience—being a child of Holocaust survivors and growing up in an immigrant neighborhood in NYC—old habits die hard, but they do die off. And eventually human cooperation and helpfulness shines through.

  16. I’m remembering the amazing stories of residents helping stranded airline passengers and commuters in New York after 9/11. An American friend of mine was living in Dublin at the time, and a stranger bought him a beer on hearing his accent that day. It was an amazing worldwide outpouring of sympathy and support and feeling of community.

    And I’m getting ill all over again when I think of what the Bush Administration and their synchophantic pundits turned it into.

    1. And I’m getting ill all over again when I think of what the Bush Administration and their synchophantic pundits turned it into.

      In reality though, it’s your fault for watching and then buying their bullshit. More so if you have missed a single chance since then to speak truth. Even more so if you have maintained friendships with the ignorant who drink deeply of the slop.

      They’re getting paid to do it, you do it free for the sake of freedom. The high road is hard to find.

      1. Not sure why you think I believed the bullshit or why you think I watched with anything but dismay as it was made into justification for invasion. Plenty of people were trying to disagree, but nobody powerful enough to stop it was interested in listening.

        And plenty of people were nodding or it wouldn’t have happened.

  17. God, I hate it when an otherwise very interesting set of ideas is ruined by overstating the case.

    We now know that 60,000 years ago, the entire human race was reduced to a single tribe of 2000 human beings wandering the savannahs of Africa.

    We *don’t* know that. This seems like a misreading on the part of whoever originally read the wikipedia article.

    We currently suspect that from 2000 to 5000 early humans *left Africa* at that point, and populated the rest of the world. But that means that they left from a larger population also.

    Just being pedantic, perhaps, but facts do matter.

    1. I think he was referring to the toba bottleneck theory, which involves the eruption of a supervolcano wiping out most of humanity and thus explaining the fact that we’re less diverse than they would otherwise expect.

      Actually, what I suspect happened is that the author conflated those two things- the migration, and the supervolcano theory.

    2. Modern humans “Out of Africa” exodus happened 60-70,000 years ago.
      Archeological finds and mtDNA both suggest as much.
      The indonesian Toba eruption happened about 73.000 years ago.
      It is favored as the bottleneck event because it features an exiting disaster scenario with an exploding super volcano causing a thousand years of global cooling.
      Interestingly several other species of homo, including at least one other species of homo sapiens also came through this event at sustainable numbers. Other species don’t show a Toba-related bottleneck.

      A catastrophic event is not necessary to explain the lack of genetic variation in humans. Homo Sapiens was not really successful at all until rather recently. A sustained semi-bottleneck and/or repeated short time population declines are shown to cause the same result in variation.

      mindfu, 60,000 years ago, the entire human race was not reduced to a single tribe of 2000 human beings wandering the savannahs of Africa. Certainly not.
      When you say, y’all “currently suspect that from 2000 to 5000 early humans *left Africa* at that point, and populated the rest of the world”, are y’all a religious sect or just a bunch of ignorants?

      “Just being pedantic, perhaps, but facts do matter.”

      HAHAHA! Theres a meme that goes like that, you know …

  18. There may not have been gangs of looters and cannibals in New Orleans post-Katrina, but there were gangs of out of control policemen murdering civilians. Several of them have been sent to jail. Pretty much proves to me that law enforcement attracts people who want savage other people. And the latest revelations about the Kill Teams in Iraq says the same about the military.

  19. Well, if all it takes is a disaster for people to be nice to each other then maybe we should have them more often.

  20. echoing:

    my experience in post-9/11 downtown new york. new yorkers were the nicest people in the world for a month or so. offering rides, giving away food and water. white brown and yellow. even fatigue-clad well-armed red state national guard folk that showed up a week into it were nice to all of us. ALL of us.

  21. In a Katrina-type event, lawless violence from mercenaries in unmarked black SUVs is a much more serious concern to me than lawless violence from fellow locals.

  22. Ultimately it comes down to the sheer magnitude of the disaster and whether it is big enough to overwhelm the emergency resources in place. When that happens, people panic and help takes time to arrive. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake was all the more devastating because it happened where nobody had expected it.

    More recent disasters like the Halifax explosion of 1917 provided the basis for research into better methods of responding. Still, no two disasters are the same.

  23. I just wanted to throw out the possibility that racism had little or nothing to do with the wild speculation – IMNSHO, it’s the media, not the populace, who came up with those stories and while there could be a corellation between ‘racists’ and ‘people who perpetuate this crap’, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the media is pulling the same stunt over and over again: reporting completely unsubstantiated bullshiat in order to sell ads. The ‘news’ is the problem, plain and simple.

  24. I think the tendency to declare a “panic” has it’s roots in religion: “Look! The world is collapsing! Follow me! I can lead!”

    What I have also found from my personal experiences during disasters and crises in NYC and such are folks I know to be arrogant and narcissistic are utterly useless in crisis. Without a society that would normally reward vanity, a narcissist is rendered useless since doing things that actually benefit others is foreign to them.

  25. Saying that people are generally polite in a disaster is something that has been true so far. But the psychology of a situation with no positive future on the horizon will look entirely different. War and apocalypse are usually what movies reference.

    Of course it’s a matter of speculation, there have been few times on a large scale when human instinct reverts to animal instinct for survival, but theoretically it is a very sound assumption. Maybe someday we will find out.

  26. Im with you mindfu.

    Every time I read an article that tries, even briefly, to place an interesting observation about human (or animal) behavior in the context of evolutionary psychology, I immediately lose interest. Actually, I dont lose interest as much as I become super annoyed and feel the need to post on comment threads.

    “This is so cross-cultural — from Haiti to New Zealand — that it is probably part of an evolved instinct inherent to our species, and it’s not hard to see why.”

    Statements like that seem emblamatic of the flaws in evolutionary psychology, at least as it presented in popular media. It is just so lazy. You cant say that something is genetically encoded (which evolved instinct certainly implies) and selected for just because a lot of people act that way and you can come up with a good explanation for why acting that way would be beneficial to them. I mean, I guess you can, people do it all the time, but I am not going to believe another word you write. Behavior is very complex, the number of genes is very finite. Eventually the number of behaviors that have been claimed to have evolved as the result of natural selection will exceed the number of genes (and other genetic regulatory elements) in our genomes. Even if we accept that all behavior is genetically encoded (and therefore subject to natural selection), it will still be incorrect to claim that most behavior exists because it was evolutionarily advantageous, because each selectable piece of genetic diversity would likely influence many behavioral traits. Most genes will influence multiple traits and most traits will be influenced by multiple genes. There will not be a gene for “not acting like a dick during natural disasters” and a claim that genetic variation that influences this behavior is selected for because of this behavior requires that we know what the other effects of this genetic variation are on behavior and other biological processes.

    The behavior that this article describes is interesting enough on its own without the evolutionary claims. It seems to me that people often try to use evolutionary psychology to strengthen their arguments by providing an objective genetic basis to their subjective claims and opinions. For the majority of these claims, particularly as they apply to large-scale behaviors, there are plenty of good explanations as to why a behavior would have evolved, but basically zero explanations as to HOW they might have evolved.

  27. “60,000 years ago, the entire human race was reduced to a single tribe of 2000 human beings wandering the savannahs of Africa.”

    This is not true and is a dramatized distortion of science. The idea that a planetary disaster is the cause of the human tendency to cooperate is stupid. If you can imagine yourself in a hunter gatherer band with 100 of your extended family, cousins and inlaws, and only sporadic contact with a few neighboring groups, cooperation and taking care of each other was something that happened EVERY DAY.

    The genetic evidence for a bottleneck (ie, a crash in population size) gives us something called effective population size, which may or may not be related to the true population (it can be larger or smaller, depending on the amount of fragmentation among other things). Humans in the wild lived in groups of a couple hundred people at most, not “a tribe of 2000”; while neighboring groups may have had some awareness of each other’s existence, there was certainly no awareness of human population counts on a continent or worldwide scale.

  28. In July 2003, Memphis was hit with 100-mph winds one morning. It tore down gigantic 300-year-old trees, shattered houses and neighborhoods, and left about a million people without electricity, some for as long as two weeks. We got federal disaster relief funds but almost zero national news coverage, presumably because the storm caused only a few deaths. Locally, folks refer to it now as Hurricane Elvis.

    The first day, as everyone began to realize that this was not going to be just some brief power outage, people threw parties. They had fridges and freezers full of food that was just going to go bad, so they started grilling. I’ve heard many people say that that was how they first met their neighbors.

    The first night of the blackout there were no robberies, no rapes, no murders. I can’t imagine when that last happened in this city. The grocery store down the street was open, selling canned goods by flashlight with the cashiers ringing orders up on calculators. People looked after each other’s kids, shared news on where to get gas and/or ice, drove considerately, and generally behaved the way I wish they would all the time. In many ways this became a really great place to live.

    But when my lights and air conditioning finally came back on, I did the happiest damn happy-dance of my life.

  29. I find that people in cars during disasters tend to behave terribly. Put someone behind the wheel when the electric grid is down and they turn into a monster. It’s kind of incredible, like the Hulk.

    1. Well, in the case of cars, cars are designed nowadays to be essentially “virtually reality” devices that purposely disconnect you from the outside world. So in that context it make sense that someone in a car would freak out: Their “perfect world” is threatened and they are stuck inside.

    2. I’m recalling driving around the NY/NJ area for the week after 9/11. So many drivers were the worst possible combination of distracted and freaked-out. They stopped being able to signal, wouldn’t turn until far later than they should, and they wouldn’t notice coming to close to other cars. Then when they did come to close, they would be liable to freak out and overreact.

      Driving puts one in an odd and almost meditative state normally. But the calm attention this space provides wasn’t really available at that time…because underneath the conscious mind was panic.

  30. My wife and I were in the Naran Valley about 30km north of the Pakistan earthquake. Bear in mind that, even though we were a sort (relative) distance from the capital, Islamabad, the severity of the quake and the terrain made it physically impossible to go anywhere. What is important to note is the way the media misrepresented what was NOT happening. We were safe but able to watch reports from CNN etc and all were complaining about the lack of any effective response from the Pakistan government. Nothing could have been further from the truth as there was significant military help for everyone. The problem was that the sheer scale of the disaster over a huge populated area, coupled with the natural terrain, meant that it was impossible for everyone to be cared for. What is important to understand is that the average ‘Joe’ Pakistani was on an equal footing with anyone else. The idea that most Muslims are Western-hating jihadists is completely false. We all worked together with the (gruesome) tasks of a post earthquake environment. Everything from providing shelter, food, and medical assistance, to making light of a major tragedy. Nature is a great social leveller.

    1. Ugh. I guess the Netherlands shouldn’t exist either. Check out their economy: And they were #1 in HDI until last year:
      Clearly, whether a place is worth saving doesn’t depend on if dykes and levees are needed to maintain it, even if you don’t think as much of New Orleans as I do.
      Think before you hit submit, buddy.

  31. Another New Orleanian here. I gotta tell you it kills me how many people still have that image of us as barely civilized monsters in their heads. We know it’s not so, but every now and again, I catch some idiotic comment from someone from somewhere else with this idea that New Orleans was some Mad Max-style free-for-all and it just isn’t true. My people are strong and caring, and they showed that it a million ways after the storm, just as they still do.
    I went into disaster relief professionally as a result of the storm, and I’ve seen the same kind of behavior all over the eastern half of this country since then.
    It brings to mind an article I read once about the flu pandemic of 1917(?). That event has been used as a cautionary tale of what people will do in a catastrophic situation, but if you delve into the situation further, you find that people panic not when they know what’s going on, but when they feel the powers that be are withholding information from them. I guess the reasoning goes, if you are being lied to about the situation, it’s because the truth is so much worse that we’re all probably gonna die.
    I suppose it’s not much better when you have the Bush administration on the one hand (which nobody believed even if they were accidentally telling the truth) and exploitative disaster porn merchants (like the cable news channels) on the other. Yet, we managed, and we’ve made a hell of a lot of progress.
    To speak to the commenter above who talked about how people will adapt to a “new normal,” so to speak, I get that completely. I spent years working on disaster relief and rebuilding here in New Orleans and every day I would see the progress, but a friend or visitor would come from out of town and see the things I saw every day and be horrified at the destruction that was still evident, and I would look at the same things and be so proud and optimistic that things had improved so much. Context, I guess.
    p.s. As long as I’m bullshitting with you all, NFL announcers can feel free to stop throwing a collage of Katrina disaster photos into every introduction to a Saints game. We already know, and no one else cares. It’s football, man! Stick to the subject!

  32. “Yes, there was some “looting” — which consisted of starving people breaking into closed and abandoned shops for food.”

    This strikes me as revisionist or even a whitewashing of events. A quick google of “looting katrina” in images (pic or it didn’t happen) brings up plenty of photographs of people relieving stores of sports wear and beer.

    Were the korean store owners on their roof-tops stopping a starving population from eating during the LA riot?

  33. I like Johann Hari’s work a lot, but I don’t agree with this piece.

    The Japanese for example have a totally different mindset. Japanese culture is built on a rock solid foundation of honour and respect. To expect them to act differently in a crisis is naive. Also, in their situation, they have a pretty high expectation that things will eventually return to normal.

    Here in the UK, it’s a different story. From my pessimistic misanthropic perspective, I believe the inhabitants of this particular island would quite happily cave your head in for a tin of beans. Disasters are one thing, but end of the world type social breakdown is not going to be pretty. I think if you have a basic need to believe people are inherently good, Johann Hari’s piece is probably heart warming. My view is humans are selfish and dangerous creatures who can and will resort to any behaviour when the survival instinct kicks in. If the sh*t hits the fan at the end of this decade (as I believe it will), I guess we will see who’s right.

    1. I can’t help but notice that Hari’s piece about how all people pull together in disasters used examples of disasters, and the responses that claim otherwise rely on how people act in non-disaster situations.

    2. “The Japanese for example have a totally different mindset. Japanese culture is built on a rock solid foundation of honour and respect.”

      Groan. I’ve lived in Japan for 22 years and I tire of this Western perspective of the way the Japanese are based on what I have to imagine is consumption of pop culture. The Japanese are not about honor and respect but conformity and obedience. The biggest reason why the Japanese feel they will eventually be taken care of is that they have a lot of socialism in their culture and little disparity between economic levels. If your culture is one in which everyone is treated roughly the same (with exception to status based on age, position, and gender within social groups, but not on a society-wide level), you have confidence that you will be taken care of in turn. The fact that other countries are full of political policies which essentially say, “look after yourself or no one else will” is why you find people being desperate and impatient. If your government has a history of providing equally for everyone, it’s going to create a different mindset than if it has a history of saying, “you’re on your own, buddy.”

      The whole “honor and respect” crap not only reinforces a (positive) stereotype, but promotes ignorance of what really drives some of the positive aspects of Japanese psychology, and that’s the dreaded socialism. If you want to have a culture more like Japan, then you have to pay a price in other areas. But then it’s easier just to ascribe it to some imagined sense of the Japanese spirit because that doesn’t require any change in how your taxes get spent.

      1. Thank you for saying it. I lived in Japan for a considerably shorter time, but that whole honor and respect thing is greatly overrated (and over-reported).

        The American “squeaky wheel gets the grease” becomes the Japanese “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down”.

  34. I saw this during the Brisbane floods (which were pretty awful at the time, but kind of pale into insignificance after recent events in Christchurch and Fukushima). For all the damage and heartache that the floods brought, they actually gave people here to redeem themselves. My opinion of humanity at the time was fairly low, thanks to nearly fifteen years of a greed is good mentality encouraged by consecutive conservative governments. However in the days following the flood you really saw what humans were like. When the number of volunteers who turned up to muck out houses caused problems for the locals trying to muck their own houses out, you know that we all carry a nugget of goodness in our being.

    It was interesting to watch the media through all of this – they tried so hard to find a negative story in all of this. At first they focused solely on the one or two dumb opportunistic looters who were caught. But then they recognised the mood that was around and started telling some good news stories about the “Brown Army”. They even started praising the local politicians who they had been bucketing for years.

    Maybe I’m putting too much of a gloss on this. It might be easier for me because all I lost was a fridge full of food and a couple of days having to listen to AM radio. Friends of mine not 5 minutes down the road lost everything. However I can’t help but think that maybe the beginning of 2011 was when our community regained a little bit of its soul.

  35. Just for the “fun” of it, I google’d five expressions:

    1. earthquake “Loma Prieta” looting
    2. earthquake Northridge looting
    3. tornado Kansas looting
    4. tornado Nebraska looting

    (Loma Prieta was the epicenter of the 1981 “San Francisco” earthquake. The quake is more properly known by that name than by San Francisco, even though it affected SF, too. Loma Prieta is by Santa Cruz.)

    According to the news accounts, there was little or no looting in California after either quake.

    And there was some looting in middle America after those tornadoes.

  36. Wow, it seems that no matter how many commenters who have actually lived through disasters testify to the contrary, there are still people who, though ones who have never experienced an actual disaster, will continue to insist that looting and violence are somehow the norm in these situations, or are the inevitable norm after a week or two.

  37. What kind of despicable creatures crave those myths so much?

    The flipside to the actually existing, historically recorded, behaviour of ordinary people in disaster zones, not mentioned by Hari although Solnit’s book covers it in some detail, is elite panic. People in authority are the source of the “looting! anarchy! chaos!” myth, and because they have a vested interest, and a great degree of psychological investment, in the idea that in the absence of central authority society just FALLS APART, they, and their internalised-authoritarian-values enablers in the media, are the usual generators of the bullshit stories of mass murder, rape and (the mind boggles) cannibalism, increasingly so the more distant they are from the actual disaster zone. And also those responsible for the pointless, draconian, and often homicidal attempts to restore order, usually at the expense of the humanitarian response.

    This identifiable feature of the Katrina aftrmath and the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake was obscured by the race issue, and, in the latter case, by assumptions that the ludicrous obsession of people like Robert Gates with security problems, that all the aid workers in situ insisted did not exist, was a cynical excuse for imperial designs. Which isn’t to say these other issues didn’t have an impact, just that they are unnecessary to explain the bizarre and destructive behaviour of officials, media bubbleheads, Blackwater condottieri, cops* and cop-wannabes (cf Algiers Point) in the post-disaster environment.

    *some cops behaved ok – the ones who were in the middle of things, like the guys stationed at the Superdome who said afterwards: “We were supposedly there to protect people from the madness everyone was ranting about; instead we had folks coming up to us and asking if we needed food and water.”

    1. I’m not denying that our overlords have a vested interest in sowing panic in the fact of a loss of their control, however sometimes those in control do the right thing, and this was certainly the case in the Brisbane floods. The single most reliable place to find information during the floods (and Cyclone Yasi for that matter) was on the Queensland Police Service’s facebook page – they played a vital role in debunking some of the crowd-sourced panics spread by social media sites, such as stories that the walls of Wievenhoe Dam were in danger of breaching and unleashing a 25m high wall of water towards Brisbane. A friend of mine pointed out that it is nice to live in a country where the police could be trusted to do these things and the sight of military helicopters and army trucks in the streets didn’t strike fear into everyone’s hearts.

      1. Fair enough.

        The key is ensuring authorities regard the population in the disaster zone as a resource, not a problem to be solved.

  38. That’s because it’s an American cultural bias and obsession.

    Out of the countries I’ve lived in, the US is the only one where I’ve gotten the impression that everyone is essentially ‘expected’ to start looting and pillaging as soon as modern society goes ‘offline’, so to speak. So to whatever extent it _does_ occur, it’s also in some sense a self-fulfilling prophecy I believe.

    More than anything I think it has to do with the fact that Americans are simply quite cynical and distrustful of each other. And more than a little apocalyptic.

    It’s not limited to looting. Just take the issue of gun ownership. Wherever you stand on that, it’s only in the US that I’ve seen the widespread belief that you _need_ a gun to protect your life and property, and that the existence of handgun ownership and fear of it, is the only thing stopping the hordes of criminals from robbing and murdering. Even the countries I’ve been to that have permissive laws on gun ownership tend to be a lot less paranoid about that.

    The question Americans should be asking themselves isn’t “Why aren’t the Japanese looting?” but “Why are we expecting them to?”.

  39. A personal anecdote, only slightly off-topic:

    I was part of the Army Reserve team that was first into Kinglake after the Black Saturday fires in Australia. Everything I experienced agrees with the OP – when disaster strikes, you see what people are really like.

    What pleasantly surprised me is that you get to see what corporations can be really like too. I’d always been of the opinion that corporations were amoral monsters, but that’s not what I saw in that couple of weeks.

    There were hundreds of people there who had lost everything – family members dead, houses burned to the ground, nothing left but the clothes on their back.

    The “Big Four” australian banks had caravans onsite in the center of town where the emergency response was being coordinated. It’s so refreshing to see banks not fucking around with paperwork. Don’t have any ID? Not a problem, we’ll just look up your name – yes, you have some sort of account with us. Here’s $500 cash. We’ll take care of the paperwork later. Same story for Insurance companies. None of that “we’ll send an assessor out and send you a cheque” shit, just “You have a policy with us? Heres a cash advance, we can sort out the details later”.

    Same story from some of the Telcos. Despite powerlines being burned down, Telstra had emergency mobile towers out and operational within a couple of days of the fires. They handed out free handsets to emergency personnel and any fire victims who didn’t have their own phone. We used their 3G as our main data link to the outside, it beat the shit out of any of our Army gear.

    Then along came the other companies. Streets Icecream vans. Nandos chili chicken burgers. Ice barrels of Coke, Lipton Ice tea etc. For those who had lost houses and were living in donated tents and were eating 3 meals of Army cooking a day (all of which tasted like ash, despite the cooks best efforts), these were amazing morale boosters

  40. Unthinkable is an amazing book! If you haven’t read Unthinkable you should for your own safety.

    My fiancee is an emergency manager/disaster planner/business continuity manager, and we have ALL the books on emergencies/disasters/catastrophes you can imagine. What you see over and over again in all historical accounts is that “panic” is rare, while caring is common. Information, and its effective distribution, is the primary difference between panic and calm.

    As a New Yorker (who was standing on the corner of Duane and Greenwich in my pajamas when the towers fell) I can tell you there was no panic on 9/11. People ran away from a falling building, which was the correct and reasonable response. But there was no screaming or hysteria at that time. (In fact I can no longer watch movies with crowds running if someone is screaming while they run. Who the hell screams when they run?)

  41. One of the most horrifying media related stories I remember, was about a year after Katrina in the NYTimes. One week they ran this huge article about kids who had returned to school in New Orleans and were misbehaving: starting fights and fires, not completing homework, vandalism, violence, etc. It was mostly from the point of view of adults who couldn’t handle these kids and had no recourse. A week later they ran an article about misbehaving male elephants who were killing each other and sexually assaulting rhinoceroses and other elephants (not kidding) and how all these scientists believed that the elephants had PTSD. And I couldn’t believe that the NYTimes hadn’t given the same consideration (that they might have PTSD) to black teenagers that they would give to elephants. It was awful.

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