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Up for grabs

Sociologists question how much looting and mayhem really took place in New Orleans

BY NOW THE IMAGES and stories of looting and mayhem in New Orleans--the residents ''shopping" for nonessentials in an abandoned Wal-Mart, alleged rapes in the Superdome, a shot fired at a rescue helicopter--have been burned into the brain of every television watcher and newspaper reader in America. But do they give us an accurate picture of the aftermath of the flood?

In fact, if criminal violence were indeed rampant in New Orleans after Katrina hit (setting aside the taking of food, water, bandages, and other necessities of survival), that would contradict much of what sociologists have learned in a half century of research about such situations. ''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."

Many observers have found the footage of looting and reports of crime to be, in the words of New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, ''one of the most dispiriting" aspect of the tragedy. Slate's William Saletan went so far as to call it ''a second-wave destructive force" that must be anticipated in future disaster planning. Yet 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 scholars' suspicions are fueled by what they say is a well-documented history of misinformation during disasters--and a general human tendency to misread crowds, even violent ones, as more malevolent than they really are.

''As a researcher, I base what I say on evidence and there was no evidence for a lot of what was being reported," says Kathleen Tierney, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and director of the Natural Hazards Center there. ''I don't think I've ever seen such an egregious example of victim blaming as I have in this disaster."

Are these scholars the equivalent of Donald Rumsfeld when he said television created the appearance of looting in post-invasion Baghdad by running and re-running the same footage of one man stealing an urn? It's possible, but already, as journalists like Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune and Matt Welch of Reason magazine, have pointed out, many widely reported rumors 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.

Quarantelli, who co-founded the disaster research center at Ohio State University in 1963 and then moved it to Delaware in 1985, grounds his skepticism about the looting reports in several hundred sociological studies of disaster he and his staff members have conducted over the past 40 years. Unlike in some urban riots, looting in the wake of natural disasters, when it occurs, remains furtive and taboo.

True, not all disasters have nonviolent aftermaths. After Hurricane Hugo swept through St. Croix in 1989, leveling the place, residents cleaned out local stores and malls, even going so far as to remove the lighting fixtures. What made St. Croix different from Kobe, Japan following the 1995 earthquake or San Francisco after the quake of 1989? Quarantelli argues that it was the radical inequality of a society where yacht-owners live beside subsistence-level workers, the sheer desperation of the situation (citizens were stranded with no food and no expectation of rescue), and a corrupt police force.

Of course, these conditions were all present to some degree in New Orleans. Yet Quarantelli, Tierney, and other scholars give the benefit of the doubt to the Louisianans, discounting, until they have proof, much of the reporting of a social breakdown.

Scholars who study the after-effects of disaster draw from the work of--and, in fact, overlap with--sociologists who study crowds and collective behavior. Crowds were a defining feature of the New Orleans tragedy. And crowds, the experts say, are very hard to read.

Clark McPhail, author of ''The Myth of the Madding Crowd" (1991) and an emeritus sociologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that people interpreting the footage of looters last week often fell prey to common misconceptions about collective behavior. Two of them: that everyone in a crowd shares the same goal, and that a collective frenzy overwhelms rational thought. For example, he says, that crowd you thought was ransacking Wal-Mart for consumer goods no doubt included people who indeed were ransacking Wal-Mart for consumer goods. But there were also mothers getting diapers, thrill seekers checking out the action, people trying to persuade their friends not to loot, and others just milling about.

''I have looked at probably more film footage of protest events than anyone else," says McPhail. And in contrast to what many people think they see in such situations, almost invariably ''it's just amazing how little violence proportionally took place."

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. The dawn-to-dusk curfew imposed in New Orleans, she said, was exactly the wrong idea. ''By putting them in lockdown, [federal officials] are preventing the people in New Orleans from helping each other," she says.

Of course, it's not just TV watchers and pundits who are worried about looters: Many residents said they were reluctant to leave the city lest they return to find all their belongings stolen. As a clearer picture emerges of what happened to the social fabric of New Orleans after the levees broke, we'll get a sense of whether they, or the sociologists, were right.

. . .

CORRECTION: Two weeks ago, I gave the incorrect address for the online forum that the American Historical Review is sponsoring to discuss whether college history professors do enough to help K-12 teachers. The forum, which is now scheduled to run from Sept. 26 to Oct. 9, will be held at historycooperative.org.

Christopher Shea's column appears in Ideas biweekly. E-mail critical.faculties@verizon.net.

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