Post-Katrina frenzy extraordinary case

September 18, 2005|By Thomas A. Glass | Thomas A. Glass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MOST OF WHAT we know about disasters we have learned from movies. On the screen they are chaotic and unpredictable, people screaming willy-nilly, every man for himself (except, of course, the hero).

The reality is almost always different.

Fifty years of research on floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and similar "mass casualty events" shows clearly that disasters are more orderly, more predictable and more civil than the movies would lead us to believe.

In most, an awkward and spontaneous order springs forth as victims organize resourcefully to stay alive and regain safety.

The real heroes are the ordinary citizens at the immediate scene, who rescue the majority of their fellow citizens, transport the majority of the injured and demonstrate exceptional resourcefulness and cooperation.

Disaster researchers call this "emergent collective behavior." These many acts of spontaneous heroism are seldom recognized because reporters and photographers arrive on the scene when the policemen, firemen and paramedics do.

Most of what makes a difference in disasters is never captured by the media, which focus understandably on the fire chief, the federal official or the hospital spokesmen, most of whom were in bed when the height of the drama played out.

Researchers have learned to find and interview those ordinary people who can talk about what happened when things were at their worst, before the sirens wailed and cameras arrived.

The bottom line: Panic and looting, research shows, are exceedingly rare.

Given this, reports of disorder in the aftermath of Katrina raise important questions. Why might violence and looting have occurred in New Orleans when other recent mass casualty events from the 9/11 attacks to the 2003 massive blackout in the Eastern United States generated neither?

Several explanations offer themselves. One theory holds that major communication failures left people feeling cut off and free to do what came naturally.

Loss of communications might have contributed to the chaos in New Orleans, but other events such as 9/11, the Eastern U.S. blackout and even Hurricane Andrew had this common feature, but no looting or violence.

Another possibility is that entrapment of victims in a sealed city with limited escape options and rising waters created conditions ripe for unrest. This theory borrows from the experience of the famous Coconut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in 1942, in which 491 people were killed in a violent stampede.

Entrapment with limited escape clearly contributed to the chaos of that event. But an even more extreme example studied closely by disaster experts - the 1993 World Trade Center bombing - had all the ingredients for panic. Some 10,000 people were trapped in darkened stairwells filled with smoke with no means of escape for up to six hours. Yet, studies indicated no panic.

Neither of these explanations fits well. Entrapment and isolation add fuel to the fire, but the limited evidence available suggests a different source of ignition in New Orleans.

That spark might well have been provided by the one thing that made the Katrina evacuation so unusual; the escape of people with means and resources, while the poor, the old, the infirm and minorities were left behind.

A strong argument can be made that the social unrest and incivility in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was provoked to some extent by a perceived breach of fairness.

The evacuation and rescue phase of Hurricane Andrew, the 9/11 attacks and the first World Trade Center Bombing, were colorblind and class-neutral. The public mood after each of these disasters was one of esprit de corps. But that spirit can be shattered if victims come to see themselves as singled out, their expectations of help unmet and resources withheld on the basis of class or color.

The hours before and after Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast were, by all accounts, characterized by a spirit of mutual aid and cooperation. Then, as New Orleans breathed a sigh of relief after avoiding the predicted "direct" hit, the levees failed and water oozed into the city, creating tens of thousands of potential casualties.

As participants gathered (and were directed) to the Louisiana Superdome and the convention center, they were acutely aware of who was trapped and who had escaped. Imagine if rescue workers had plucked only the wealthy or important from the stairwells after the first WTC bombing, leaving only VUPs (very unimportant people).

As early as Aug. 30, reports of widespread looting and violence were becoming common. Gangs of armed men were said to be roaming the streets, stealing TVs and guns, raping women and shooting at helicopters. Something had gone terribly wrong. That in-the-same-boat feeling that promotes cooperation and resourcefulness was replaced by a feeling that one group had been abandoned and was left to fend for itself.

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