Last month I kicked off my “Disaster Mythology” series. The first disaster myth I listed was: Disasters bring out the worst in society (also addressing “mass panic”).

Myth defined: After a large disaster, society breaks down causing chaos and anarchistic conditions. Examples: John Gibson from Fox News during Hurricane Katrina explained that there were “All kinds of reports of looting, fires and violence. Thugs shooting at rescue crews…” On MSNBC, Tucker Carlson stated “People are being raped…People are being murdered. People are being shot. Police officers being shot.” Even the Chief of Police for NOPD went on the Oprah show and claimed that babies were being raped. In reality, there were very few official reports of rapes or murders. Chief Compass explained later that “We don’t have any substantiated rapes. We will investigate if they come forward.”

In fact, it doesn’t need to be an actual disaster for people to consider the worst. In preparation for Y2K, Japan put 96,000 soldiers on heightened alert and the entire world felt a sense of impending doom. There were many predictions in the media of mass chaos and widespread panic.

In essence, the myth revolves around the notion that after a large disaster, there will be societal collapse due to decentralization of power/protection and resulting in anarchy.

In response to that myth, here are some facts that form a rebuttal:

Mass panic? Turns out mass panic is pretty rare. An example provided by Erik Auf der Heide:

Hurricane Carla, Galveston, Texas, 1961. Carla was a category-5 hurricane, the highest level on the Saffir-Simpson scale. It was the worst hurricane to hit the Texas coast in 40 years, having sustained winds of over 150 miles per hour as it positioned itself to strike the mainland. Headlines in several newspapers reported, “More than 100,000 persons flee in near panic.” Actually, 70–80% of those on Galveston Island remained during Carla, even though most knew they would be cut off from the mainland. Islanders boasted of having had beach parties during the hurricane.

In fact, hurricane parties are fairly common (see hurricane parties for Hurricane IkeHurricane Camille, and Hurricane Andrew).

Sociologists have long identified substantial disconnects between public perceptions of post-disaster human behavior and the empirical assessments of that behavior. After many disasters, researchers, reporters, and public officials have been unable to corroborate the majority of harsh reports regarding rapes, murders, and chaos. In fact, there is often a sense of community that develops before, during, and after a disaster. As Ms. Sun points out: “Indeed, community residents who survive the initial hazard event are the true “first responders,” performing many critical lifesaving tasks, including searching for, rescuing, and caring for other survivors. The research also suggested that true panic—characterized by irrational flight behavior—is not a typical disaster response”.

Looting is more common during riots but is actually rare during disasters. As the Suburban Emergency Management Project points out, looting is more often a fear than an actuality during disasters. In a poll taken in 1990 by the Project, they found a majority of emergency managers agreed with the statement that “looting rarely occurs before or after a disaster.

Anarchy? Not so much… After Hurricane Katrina, a report by the New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, stated: “Four weeks after the storm, few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The piles of bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines say that although anarchy reigned at times and people suffered unimaginable indignities, most of the worst crimes re- ported at the time never happened.” This article won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Some think that the anarchy motif is a way for more resources to be devoted to a disaster–especially in the form of military might. Others say it’s just media sensationalism and the current equivalent to yellow journalism.


Some good articles disproving this myth: