The Impact of Hurricanes on Crime: A Spatio-Temporal Analysis in the City of Houston, Texas

By Leitner, Michael; Helbich, Marco | Cartography and Geographic Information Science, April 2011 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Hurricanes on Crime: A Spatio-Temporal Analysis in the City of Houston, Texas


Leitner, Michael, Helbich, Marco, Cartography and Geographic Information Science


Introduction

Between 1999 and 2005, the yearly crime totals in the city of Houston, TX ranged between 130,000 and 150,000, with crimes moderately increasing during this time period. This paper investigates the impact that natural disasters, specifically hurricanes have on the spatial and temporal distributions of crimes at the local scale, and possible explanations for this impact. In general, it is believed that crime generally trends downward during the recovery stage, with the exception of domestic violence (Enarson 1999; Tucker 2001), and gradually returns to pre-disaster levels during the reconstruction stage (Leitner et al. 2011). The downward trend during the recovery stage is due in part to emergent pro-social behaviors which create an atmosphere of altruism among the members of the community (Quarantelli 1970; Drabek and McEntire 2003). Cromwell et al. (1995) refers to this behavior as informal guardianship. It is speculated that in the case of post-Katrina New Orleans, the presence of a large number of National Guard troops and the influx of billions of dollars in governmental aid have contributed to the reduction in crime rates (Roman, Irazola, and Osborne 2007). After some time, the altruism of the community fades away and crime returns to pre-disaster levels (Bailey 2009). One phenomenon that has attracted much attention in the literature is whether looting occurs during the emergency stage of a disaster. Some researchers argue that the belief that citizens will begin looting simply because the opportunity presents itself in the wake of a disaster is a myth and largely promulgated by media reports (Quarantelli 1970; Wenger and Friedman 1986; Sunseri 2005). In contrast, other researchers believe that looting following a domestic disaster is not a myth (Frailing and Harper 2007), or they found support both for and against the "looting myth" (Manusinghe 2007).

Until today, just a handful of empirical studies exist that have tested whether the different theories expressing the relationship between crime and natural disaster can be supported. Of those, quite a few have investigated the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on crime in New Orleans, or other major cities directly "hit" by either one or both hurricanes, for example Houston, and/or receiving large numbers of New Orleans evacuees, for example Atlanta, Baton Rouge and Houston (Leitner et al. 2011). Of all studies, most of them are small-scale, time-series analysis, usually covering a multi-year time period, focusing exclusively on a single urban neighborhood. One exception is the study by Bass (2008) which compared crime trends in New Orleans with crime trends in ten major evacuation cities, and ten other cities of similar size that did not receive large numbers of evacuees from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In addition, the focus of empirical studies is on one crime type, only (Frailing and Harper 2007; VanLandingham 2007; 2008) or on several different crime types (Wenger and Friedman 1986; Cromwell et al. 1995; Suar and Kar 2005; Lawton and Schulenburg 2007; Munasinghe 2007; Bailey 2009; Leitner and Helbich 2009). Most studies discuss changes in crime during the emergency and reconstruction stages with the length of both stages depending on the severity of the disaster. According to Kates et al. (2006) the emergency stage for New Orleans after Katrina is the longest on record at six weeks, while the reconstruction stage is predicted to last for about eight to eleven years. The study by Leitner et al. (2011) is the only large-scale study to date that investigates the relationship between one specific natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina) and crime in both urban and rural parishes of Louisiana. The same study also discussed violent and nonviolent crime trends, both temporally and spatially during the four stages of a disaster: mitigation, preparedness/planning, emergency/recovery, and during reconstruction in both the hardest hit areas of Orleans Parish and neighboring parishes, and in areas outside this disaster zone that received large numbers of evacuees. …

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