How Much Looting?

September 13th, 2005 9:25 AM

The Boston Globe reports that sociologists believe the bad news coming from the media about the behavior in New Orleans was overblown. They blame "credulous reporters" for creating a misleading situation.

"'The evidence is overwhelming,' says Enrico Quarantelli, an emeritus professor of sociology and the founding director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, 'that in the standard natural disaster or technological disaster'--like a chemical spill--'you're not going to get looting.'

"Quarantelli and a half-dozen other experts on disaster aftermaths and crowd behavior contacted last week insisted that follow-up investigations will reveal that the impression of Hobbesian violence in New Orleans over the past two weeks was created in large part by rumor and amplified by sometimes credulous reporters."

The paper has a list of rumors which "have proved false or are at least unconfirmed."

"'We don't have any substantiated rapes,' the New Orleans Police superintendent Edwin Compass told the British newspaper The Guardian, speaking of the situation at the Superdome. Nor have any bodies of victims of foul play turned up there. The Federal Aviation Administration and military officials have cast doubt on the story of the rescue helicopter that came under fire outside Kenner Memorial Hospital on Aug. 31."

"And television reporters' tales of refugees from New Orleans hijacking cars at gunpoint in Baton Rouge or rioting in shelters there, Witt wrote, turned out to be groundless too. The Baton Rouge police told The Washington Post that crime levels had not risen noticeably in that city. There were clearly armed thugs on the street in New Orleans--and there are five murders there a week in 'normal' times, among the highest per capita rates in the country--but something not unlike the fog of war has so far kept us from determining just how many."

One scholar says in the future, the states and the federal government might get the wrong idea.

"Tierney says that it would be extraordinarily counterproductive if officials, inspired by what they think of as the New Orleans example, militarized disaster operations--focusing more on restoring 'order' via the National Guard than on getting food and water to needy residents and organizing residents, who know the area, into rescue parties."