Disaster movies often depict people running around after an earthquake or hurricane in helpless panic, while looters break into jewelry stores. While perhaps effective from an entertainment perspective, this is far from the reality of what actually happens in these situations—and the myth is affecting our ability to effectively respond in a crisis.
During the Cold War, the federal government was concerned about how Americans would react to nuclear bombs detonating on U.S. soil. In an effort to address this question, sociologists were asked to study the issue. Their work became the foundation of a body of research that finds, contrary to what film directors seem to think and contrary to the way media reports are often presented, that people tend notto panic during disasters; they are nothelpless; and crime rates rarely rise.
Instead, researchers have found that people react rationally in such situations. When we become aware of the possibility of danger we talk about it with those around us, sharing information and trying to understand the situation. We then make rational decisions about how to protect ourselves. We don’t just flee the scene of a crisis without regard for the well-being of others, or become shocked into inaction.
The belief that people who experience a disaster behave irrationally is closely connected to the impression many have that disaster survivors are helpless victims. While survivors and communities do need help, they are not helpless.
In fact, during disasters, the survivors themselves are the first responders, because they were already there when the disaster happened. The decisions survivors make can and do save their own lives and the lives of the people around them. It can take a while for help from the outside to arrive, but people don’t just sit around waiting. They begin to organize themselves into groups, identify the resources they have, and use those resources to help others. In fact, this spontaneous response is so reliable that research from around the world has found that people are often more likely to be rescued by these emergent, informal groups than they are by official search and rescue teams.
There is also a widespread belief that amidst the (imagined) panic and chaos, communities turn into a sort of lawless Wild West, with looters running rampant. But just as with panic, paralysis and other maladaptive behaviors, looting is extremely rare during disasters—yet time and time again the media, the public, and even law enforcement reinforce the belief that this is a common occurrence.
Over the past week, we watched this myth unfold in real time as Hurricane Florence devastated the Carolinas. A headline on a Florida TV station’s website that read “Looting already starts as Florence arrives” captured the attitude many in the media take on as a disaster begins. They find a single, isolated incident, and frame it as “just the beginning” of an impending crime wave—with no evidence that this is the case. Reports like this can instill fear and convince people that they shouldn’t evacuate.
A second incident during Hurricane Florence exemplifies a second issue with the looting myth. In Wilmington, a city described as being “cut off” by floodwaters, a group of people were seen leaving a dollar store with food, water and other supplies. A local news crew arrived and the resulting, jarring footage shows a reporter chasing people down while screaming. The fact that these items might have been needed for survival didn’t seem to occur to anyone. Taking food and water from a dollar store is hardly the moral equivalent of taking TVs or jewelry.
Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure in New Orleans highlighted that other factors, including race, underlie the looting myth. In the days after the storm, photojournalists posted two nearly identical photos of people swimming through chest-deep water carrying food. The first photo, depicting two white people, was labeled “finding” food while the second photo, of a black woman, was labeled “looting” food.
With this type of media coverage, it’s clear why the public has such a focus on looting. In fact, this myth is so prevalent that researchers found that 70–90 percent of people who had been through a disaster heard that looting had occurred. Yet when researchers investigate such a rumor, they usually find that it traces back to one or two specific incidents and/or was based on a misunderstanding or exaggeration.
Unfortunately, it is not only media that perpetuate the looting myth. News coverage during disasters also comes with comments from law enforcement, and even emergency managers, that suggest they too believe lawlessness reigns during disaster. Even when they are educated on the subject, they still may publicly denounce looting, perhaps in an effort to appease the concerns of the public, and that can feed back into the cycle of this myth.
This is not to say that no one commits crimes during disasters. Certainly, there are confirmed cases of people stealing luxury items at such times, but it is nowhere near the widespread problem the public believes it to be. Lawlessness and violent behavior are rare during disasters (with the notable exception of domestic violence, which has been found to increase and be reported more often post-disaster).
Disaster myths are not just a pet peeve of disaster researchers; they have serious implications for how we plan for and respond to disasters. When the public is concerned about looting, for example, public resources can be diverted to protect property instead of addressing more pressing tasks like search and rescue. The dollar-store incident during Florence is a good example.