Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Crowd resilience and Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy is now abating in its ferocity after battering the East Coast of the US, and the clear-up is now beginning.  While around 40 people were killed in the US, and over 70 in the Carribbean, it seems that it could have been much worse, given how much hype there was in the media about the scale of this storm. The emergency response seems to have been fairly efficient, with most people heeding the warning to evacuate the areas at risk of flooding and storm damage, leaving them populated mainly by journalists and first responders. To me, this shows how people can act upon warnings about impending danger, and further undermines the out-dated (and totally false) notion that people will 'panic' if they become aware of a threat. If information is provided in a way that people can act to remove themselves and their families from danger, they will usually do so. A very good example of this is the advice given by the Mayor of New Orleans as Hurricane Gustave approachd the city in August 2008 (the first big one after Katrina), which resulted in a safe and efficient evacuation with no mass panic;
You need to be scared, you need to be concerned, you need to get your butts moving out of New Orleans now! … We are ordering a mandatory evacuation of the city of New Orleans starting in the morning at 8am on the West Bank… we give you four hours to evacuate’
 (Ray Negin, Mayor of New Orleans. 31st August 2008)

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.  

Solnit, R. (2008). A Paradise built in Hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. Viking, New York, US.

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.

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