By Agata Chmiel ~

As the “strongest Atlantic basin hurricane” [1] so far, Hurricane Irma has been gathering increasing media attention for the past two weeks. Among daily updates on death tolls, damage and upcoming threats, there seems to be an increasing media focus on societal consequences of this natural disaster. One of the main issues that have been circulating around social media and various online news platforms [2] is looting. Considering an observation that the current portrayal of post-Irma looters is disturbingly one-sided and seemingly political, I would like to turn your attention to a slightly more academic perspective that holds evidence and previous research on post-disaster looting. While taking advantage of a disaster situation is wrong in itself, so is politicising and misrepresenting it to the public. The following paragraphs of this article will explain this position.

Social science of post-disaster ‘looting’

To begin with, it is worth to shed a light on the definition ‘looting’. The Encyclopaedia of Crisis Management explains it as “the very public theft of private property, usually when the owner is unable to protect it and normal policing functions are ineffective.” [3] In addition, the book underlines that the activity is more likely to occur “in areas of socioeconomic deprivation, where some of the inhabitants are disaffected (…) or do not feel that they have a very strong stake in the normal workings of society.” [4] What is worth looking at, is the controversy [5] that the Encyclopaedia (and scholarly field as a whole) recognizes in the issue.

Such experts in crisis management as Helsloot and Ruitenberg recognize that throughout the various phases of a disaster, public behaviour may be misread and wrongly generalized by the media. The authors discuss three main myths of social reactions to emergencies that politicians and journalists still seem to believe – ‘panic’, ‘dependency’ [on administrative relief], and ‘looting’ [6]. The authors argue that even if looting occasionally occurs, it is not as common as the media or government exaggeratedly tend to project. In addition to that, Barsky, Trainor and Torres found that the “media reports on looting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina conflicted with long-standing assertions in sociological literature on disasters portraying widespread looting as a myth.” [7] Should this be the case, on what do the (social) media base their looting-related stories?

Irma’s news: between the truth, the politics and the media

 Numerous media accounts have been made on vandalism, looting and burglary in the regions affected by the Irma Hurricane [8]. For instance, Miami Police arrested “more than 50 suspected looters” [9]which Deputy Chief of Miami Police, Luis Cabrera considers as a strong deterrence mechanism against any sort of social disorder. He even approved of a social media shaming of the temporarily imprisoned suspects by posting their photo with a caption: “Thinking about looting? Ask these guys how that turned out. #stayindoors.” [10] Moving to other regions, Minister of France’s overseas territories, Annick Girardin, expressively recounts “scenes of pillaging” [11] of televisions or food and water supplies that she has observed. In her message to local authorities, she claimed that “it is essential for police to restore order” [12]Such messages are supported by the media and, unsurprisingly, by the general public that seems to be making easy judgments on those not only looting for economic purpose, but also on those who evidently engage in acts of desperation (e.g. taking clothes for mannequins or stealing water). At the moment, it seems that more and more journalists and online media platforms are filled with hatred and ostracism, rather than a constructive opinion on the situation. Looting should not be denied, but at the same time such newsagents as the Guardian suggest that perhaps it is not the main thing the media and politicians should be focusing on right now. In addition, experts on disaster relief urged before that “looting gets to the media’s responsibility to be very careful in the way it portrays neighborhoods that have low socioeconomic status or neighborhoods that are diverse. There’s pretty good evidence, looking at Hurricane Sandy, for example, that crime can actually go down in the midst of a disaster.” [13]

Rethinking on the current portrayal of Irma’s “looters”

 Looting is certainly a controversial issue within the crisis management field as it can neither be denied, nor taken as a given to every disaster. While there might be evidence of looters that plunder private property for abhorrent economic gains only, all reported cases of property trespass should distinguish “looting from appropriating behavior” [14]where the latter concerns a last-resort action of survival. What seems to be a problem in current coverage, is that it is less of a matter of trying to understand and address looting’s characteristics, but rather a disturbing occurrence of its politicization and misrepresentation. It is probably difficult to make a sound judgment on the Irma Hurricane looting or looting-imitating stories while sitting in a dry, warm and safe environment. What should be remembered though, is that whether looting after Irma is a widespread or merely singular issue, it should not be used as a political card that is being played less against the looters themselves but rather against the entire races, ethnicities and/or social groups.


[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2017/09…

[2] http://www.newsweek.com/lootin…

[3] Penuel, K., Statler, M., & Hagen, R. (2013). Encyclopedia of crisis management. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, Inc.; p. 575

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] I. Helsloot and A. Ruitenberg, ‘Citizen Response to Disasters: A Survey Of Literature And Some Practical Implications’ (2004) 12 Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management; p. 103

[7] L. Barsky, J. Trainor, M. Torres (2006) ‘Disaster realities in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina: Revisiting the looting myth. Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Report Number’

[8] http://www.miamiherald.com/new…

[9] https://www.reuters.com/articl…

[10] Ibid

[11] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-…

[12] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/new…

[13] http://www.wnyc.org/story/brea…

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