A common fear is that after disasters, social norms & structures can collapse before the authorities arrive to regain control of the situation and restore order. For instance, a reporter from the BBC's Newsnight on 11/11/2013, talked of 'a growing sense of panic' in Tacloban (the town that was worst hit by the typhoon) with reports of the breakdown of law and order and armed looters on the streets, although there was no footage of such looting, and the interview was filmed while he was walking through deserted streets. A missionary from the US interviewed by the BBC also expressed his worries about a potential 'mob' situation and said, 'we need the military to get there as soon as possible' but this seemed to be more his fears of what might happen rather than descriptions of what was actually going on. Other coverage by the BBC also describes 'desperate survivors looting damaged shops and buildings for whatever they can take'. While such quotes may make sensational headlines, they are rarely backed up by detailed examination of what actually goes on. If such 'looting' happens it is usually the exception (rather than the norm as is often implied in media reports), and local crime rates tend to drop after disasters as survivors support each other and try to re-build their lives.
A previous post I wrote after Hurricane Sandy hit New York in Oct 2012, looked at how coverage of anti-social behaviours post disasters is often vastly exaggerated, with descriptions of such behaviours very much in the eye of the beholder. For instance, the difference between people 'looting' and 'gathering essential supplies' to survive when local infrastructure has broken down, is often a matter of interpretation, and Vorhees et al (2007) argued that descriptions of such behaviour after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 often depended on the ethnicity and/or social class of the people doing it. Indeed, recent research into disasters (e.g. Jacob et al, 2008) has found that the threat of widespread disorder is one of many 'disaster myths' that are not supported by evidence, and such beliefs may be held even by those responsible for emergency management and response (Drury et al, 2013). Some (e.g. Tierney et al, 2006) have also argued that media reports exaggerating 'lawlessness' after disasters are problematic because they reinforce ideological discourses that call for an increased military role in disaster response. This isn't to say that there aren't some benefits of military resources being used to assist with the aid effort (as they will have the equipment and expertise to quickly dispatch aid to remote communities), but I believe disaster relief efforts should remain as much as possible under the control of the civilian authorities, as militarising disaster relief can perpetuate outdated myths about communities' 'irrational' responses to emergencies.
Drury, J, Novelli, D & Stott, C (2013) Psychological disaster myths in the perception and management of mass emergencies. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12176
Jacob, B, Mawson, A, Payton M & Guignard (2008) Disaster mythology and fact: Hurricane Katrina & Social attachment. Public Health reports, 123. 555-566.
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.