Disaster Mythology and Availability Cascades
Sun, Lisa Grow, Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, both public officials and the mainstream media painted a dramatic and deeply disturbing picture of violence and looting in devastated New Orleans. The New Orleans Police Superintendent asserted that "little babies [were] getting raped" in the Superdome, a shelter where hurricane survivors took refuge. (1) As a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin reported that Katrina's survivors were sinking into an "almost animalistic state" after days of "watching hooligans killing people, raping people." (2)
Similar accounts dominated newspaper headlines and TV coverage of Katrina for days. The media consistently depicted post-Katrina New Orleans both as a city descending into anarchy and violence and as a war-zone in which Katrina's victims attacked those who had come to their aid. Epitomizing this alarming rhetoric, a New York Times editorial reported that New Orleans was "a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs, suffering innocents, a shattered infrastructure, a gutted police force, insufficient troop levels and criminally negligent government planning." (3) Not to be outdone, the Financial Times of London asserted that, at the Convention Center, another shelter of last resort for New Orleans' besieged citizens, "girls and boys were raped in the dark and had their throats cut and bodies were stuffed in the kitchens while looters and madmen exchanged fire with weapons they had looted." (4) The lead news story in the Los Angeles Times described National Guard troops taking "positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee." (5) Television coverage likewise asserted that looting had overtaken New Orleans. Television channels played clips of Katrina survivors taking goods from deserted stores in a seemingly never-ending 24-hour loop.
Yet these unrelenting tales of anarchy, violence, and chaos in post-Katrina New Orleans proved to be, at best, greatly exaggerated and, at worst, utterly false. Nearly a month after Katrina struck New Orleans, major news outlets retracted many of their previous reports of widespread violence and crime in Katrina's wake. (6) Unfortunately, the early reports have proved resilient, and the truth has never fully overtaken the myth.
II. DISASTER MYTHOLOGY AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
The myths about post-disaster human behavior that took hold in the aftermath of Katrina were not unique to that catastrophe. More than three decades earlier, disaster sociologists had identified several important public misconceptions about typical human behavior in the aftermath of disasters. (7) These misconceptions--also called "disaster myths"--include (1) the myth that widespread antisocial behavior, such as violence and looting, is common after disasters; (2) the myth that most disaster survivors will panic and engage in irrational flight behavior; and (3) the myth that disaster survivors commonly suffer a shock reaction that paralyzes them and interferes with their ability to respond to the disaster and care for themselves and others. (8)
Understanding how these myths gain traction during disasters is important because these misconceptions distort our legal and policy framework for disaster response and recovery. The myth of widespread antisocial activity, for example, has resulted in a U.S. legal system of disaster response that overemphasizes security risks at the expense of humanitarian efforts to rescue and care for survivors. (9) First, exaggerated reports of looting and violence post-disaster make the President more likely to deploy federal troops in a law enforcement capacity, rather than a humanitarian capacity, and less likely to deploy troops at all if the President decides for legal or political reasons not to invest federal troops with law enforcement authority. (10) Second, such exaggerated reports also tend to delay aid to survivors. …