The UK media is now focusing on the aftermath in New York, and how residents will cope with power cuts, clearance of debris etc. However, I have detected a worrying undercurrent in some of the coverage where the media is speculating about looting in New York (as I write this on 31/10/12, I have seen no reports of looting yet). This reminds me of some awful media coverage after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the immediate aftermath of the flooding, there were reports of mass looting, gang-rapes, and murders in New Orleans. However, this was later shown to be wildly exaggerated and the crime rate in the period after Katrina actually dropped, forcing the local Police chief to resign when the scale of exaggeration became clear. When asked about possible lawlessness' on the BBC's Newsnight, 30/10/12, Ray Negin replied that after Katrina, 'looting' began in New Orleans because there were large numbers of people in an urban area with no access to supplies, and they were doing it to survive because they felt they had been abandoned by the authorities. Vorhees et al (2007) showed how there was often a racial bias in how this was reported in the media, and the coverage often depended upon the ethnicity of the people doing it (white people were 'gathering essential supplies', and African Americans were 'looting'). We shall see how coverage of this story develops, but I do hope it doesn't fall back into the age-old myth that when the 'forces of law and order' are not present after emergencies, people retreat into a savage, uncivilised state. Studies of over a century of mass emergencies in the US (Solnit, 2009) have shown that people and communties can be remarkably resilient in their aftermath, and if the authorities respond in a way that treats the situation as a potential public order problem (such as allowing the military to take over the emergency response), this can create more problems than previously existed and hinder the spontaneous resilience that emerges.
Tierney, K., Bevc, C, & Kuligowski, E. (2006). Metaphors matter: Disaster myths, media frames and their consequences in Hurricane Katrina. ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604: 57-81.
Voorhees, C.W., Vick, J. & Perkins D.D. (2007). ‘Came Hell and High Water’: The Intersection of Hurricane Katrina, the News Media, Race and Poverty. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 17: 415–429.