Looting & Violence in Haiti: Rumors vs. Reality

Here’s how the story line usually goes for disasters: First, in the days immediately following the hurricane or quake or other calamity, reporters warn of a generalized “fear” that desperate survivors may turn to violence and looting. Then, sure enough, reporters tell stories of violence and looting. Some are eye witness accounts by credible observers. Most are not.

The thing is, in developed nations, we can say with some certainty that widespread, anti-social behavior almost never happens after a disaster. In fact, the opposite is true. People, like all animals, tend to form groups and show each other great courtesy in times of extreme shock and duress. People do this because it is in their interest. There was looting and some sporadic violence after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but the mayhem never rose to a level that justified the amount of coverage. More people likely suffered because of the fear of looting and violence—due to delayed relief and search-and-rescue efforts and unnecessarily hostile encounters with police and armed, frightened civilians—than because of actual looting and violence.

That said, there are rare cases in which looting and violence can become widespread. Those cases have not been well-studied, partly because they are not very likely to occur at all anywhere. But one person who has studied this question in relative detail is Enrico Quarantelli, founding director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware and a sort of Godfather of disaster sociology.

I’ve interviewed Quarantelli several times over the years. At the moment, our conversation about looting and riots keeps coming back to me as I read the ominous headlines out of Haiti. After Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Quarantelli heard reports of rampant looting in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He didn’t believe it; after all, the research suggested that looting reports were almost always overblown after disasters. So he went to St. Croix three times to study the situation himself. In the end, he came up with a Theory of Looting. He speculated that widespread looting seemed to only happen when four different conditions were all present:

1. Dramatic disparity between rich and poor.
2. High levels of petty crime and gang activity. (“Gangs are almost always the leaders in any case of mass looting,” Quarantelli said.)
3. An ineffective and corrupt police force. (“A corrupt and ineffective police force doesn’t scare anyone,” he said.)
4. A massive catastrophe. (Hurricane Hugo destroyed or heavily damaged more than 90 percent of all homes in St. Croix—devastation on a comparable scale to the situation in Port-au-Prince.)

Notice that three of the four conditions are all pre-requisites, present before the actual disaster strikes. Another reminder that the health of a city after a disaster is directly related to the health before the disaster.

But anyway, the point is, all of these conditions are present in Haiti. And it’s clear that some looting and violence are happening. The question is, how much? That question is critical because it shapes the entire response effort, from the Americans’ decision of whether to air drop supplies to a Haitian police officer’s decision whether to enter a crowd with his gun drawn—or not.

So far, no one knows what the scale of the misbehavior is. But there have been a few voices urging people not to overreact:

“[O]ver the last two or three days we have seen instances of looting, but we can’t over-exaggerate that point. These are isolated incidents of looting in the commercial districts, where people are gaining access to warehouses that were largely destroyed anyway by the earthquake.
I’ve been in Haiti before with natural disasters, principally floods, and the food rioting and the looting has been much worse than I have seen in Port-au-Prince this time. There are still incidents, but we can still characterize that as isolated incidents, and if we listen to the doctors here and other humanitarian aid organizations, they say they need aid first, security second.”—CNN’s Karl Penhaul, Jan. 19, 2010

“My assessment of the security situation is that it is calm at this time. There are incidents of violence. Those who live and work here in Haiti who have been here for years, both within our own embassy and the other international community, ... tell me that the level of violence that we see right now is below and at pre-earthquake levels.”—US Lt. Gen. Ken Keen talking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Jan. 19, 2010

Two things to keep in mind in the coming days, particularly if you are covering the disaster or are involved in any way in the relief effort:

1. Watch out for classic reporter shortcuts. These are guaranteed red flags. When reporters don’t have the goods, they break out the passive voice and refer obliquely to “reports” of unnamed origin. In other words, they say things like this:

Reports of isolated looting and violence intensified as night approached, and there were reports of Haitians streaming out of the capital.”—“Officials Strain to Distribute Aid to Haiti as Violence Rises,” New York Times, Jan. 16, 2010 [I added the italics.]

Or this:

“Angry Haitians have reportedly been using corpses to set up roadblocks in Port-au-Prince to protest those delays.”—FOX News, Jan. 15, 2010

Or this:

“UN Food Warehouses in Haiti Reportedly Looted: Looters have reportedly broken into UN food warehouses as tempers rise among the thousands of Haitians awaiting desperately needed emergency aid.”—CBC News, Jan. 15, 2010

Beware. I was on a panel with a New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter after Katrina, and we were talking about how hard it is for reporters to get good info in disasters—particularly when, as happened in New Orleans, police and city officials are the ones giving you the false information. But the reporter said something that has always stayed with me: “It’s important to remember to use that old basic tool of reporting. Always ask, ‘How do you know that?’” Here’s an example where the reporter did not ask that question—or did not share the answer, in any event:

“There are thefts everywhere,” said Joel Querette, 23, a college student camped out at a park near the airport. “People have guns and knives, and they are stealing and looting the stores.”—“Looting Flares Where Authority Breaks Down,” New York Times, Jan. 16, 2010

Now, I don’t mean to belittle the challenge these reporters are up against. It is almost impossible to get good information in a disaster. But given what we DO know: that people tend to expect looting and violence after disasters and that people tend to be wrong, reporters should try to be extra diligent in conveying the limits of their knowledge—and the rest of us should consume media reports with an extra layer of scrutiny.

I had an editor at Time who chewed me out when I used the word, “reportedly,” in a story. I didn’t like it when it happened, and I remember pointing to other legitimate outlets that used the word all the time, but she was right. It’s bogus, and I hereby promise not to do it again. It’s a way to hedge an assertion, since you don’t really know if it is true, when in fact you should either say who is making these reports and how they know—or just resist the urge to trade in hearsay about something so important.

2. Remember that looting is often in the eye of the beholder. It may look like looting on CNN, but that doesn’t mean it is. If I were starving, and I came upon a stash of food in the midst of the rubble after a catastrophe, I’d probably take it and share it with my family. Wouldn’t you? Is that pure looting? Given the scale of the destruction, the bright line between survival behavior and old-fashioned stealing gets gray.

When Quarantelli went to St. Croix after Hurricane Hugo, he concluded that “there was massive looting, by any criteria one would use. Three of the four shopping centers were for all practical purposes totally looted. People even took the light fixtures off the walls.” And yet in other cases, what looked a lot like looting was not: “On the other hand, everyone also believed the Coca-Cola plant had been looted. But it turned out the manager had opened it up as a gesture of good will—‘Come and take all the Coca-Cola you want!’”

A couple years from now, some earnest grad student will come out with a report about looting in Haiti after the 2010 quake. And no one will pay much attention. But by then, we will know more, I hope. Until then, we should err on the side of trust, realizing that it means taking risks.

For an idea of how confusing these situations are, even in cases where looting is clearly happening and people are getting hurt, check out this CNN video of Anderson Cooper trying to help a boy injured in the chaos. It is gripping, but at the end, it’s totally unclear what happened—at least to me. And I’m not sure, but I’d guess that if you were there with Anderson Cooper, you would still not have perfect clarity. That’s the nature of disasters. The more desperately you need good information, the less likely you are to find it.