Saturday, September 9, 2017

GateHouse: The myth of lawlessness in the wake of disaster

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
September 8, 2017
As Floridians scramble to prepare for Hurricane Irma and its impending devastation — how much thought is going into law and order after the hurricane makes landfall?
In the wake of massive disasters, fears about crime and other forms of disorder almost always rise, reported the Chicago Tribune. But while some people do take advantage of the collective distraction, the fear of crime — particularly looting — typically outstrips the reality, say the experts who study storms and recoveries.
The Tribune reported there were about 63 people charged with storm-related crimes including burglary and theft after Hurricane Harvey made landfall last month. Harris County, home to Houston, Texas, has a population of nearly 5 million people.
Violent crime in the wake of a natural disaster is often exaggerated. In fact, violent crime often decreases after a disaster. In New York City, in the weeks following Hurricane Sandy, crime fell precipitously. Murder was down 86 percent; rape down 44 percent; and robbery down 30 percent. One crime that is often played-up following natural disasters is looting, the theft of goods from commercial businesses, wrote John Stringham in “Natural Disaster and Crime.” In the two weeks following the devastating Moore, Oklahoma, tornado in 2013, police arrested only 17 looters, some of whom came from as far away as California and New York. The media often portrays neighborhoods struggling after a natural disaster as lawless havens for criminals and predators.
“Fears of looting are common in disasters and maybe even more common than actual looting itself,” Andy Horowitz, an assistant professor of history at Tulane who focuses on disasters, told the Tribune.
He said fear of crime is typical after a massive disaster, when peace of mind goes with the rest. If a person lacks basics like ... a dry place to put their children to sleep, feeling frazzled and grasping for anything that will restore a sense of order becomes attractive, Horowitz said.
Researchers in disaster science have debunked the idea that catastrophe causes social breakdown and releases the ugliest parts of human nature, reported Slate. Research done for the National Hazards Center has found, “that panic is not a problem in disasters; that rather than helplessly awaiting outside aid, members of the public behave proactively and prosocially to assist one another ... social cohesiveness and informal mechanisms of social control increase during disasters, resulting in a lower incidence of deviant behavior.”
However, a crime that invariably increases after a disaster is fraud. For example, people who are not entitled to disaster relief will apply for and obtain benefits intended for disaster survivors. There is no universal protocol for the distribution of such benefits. Some nonprofit groups and public agencies in the rush to provide relief to needy victims often fall prey to fraudsters.
Sometimes benefits are handed out quickly and widely, with little verifying documentation required from persons who claim them. In other cases, disaster benefits are more difficult and take longer to obtain, with a series of verifications built into the application process. In either case the victims often feel the pain.
Kelly Frailing of Loyola University New Orleans recommends the following strategies to deal with crime after a natural disaster. Initially, rapid response by law enforcement, related agencies and the National Guard can protect hard-hit areas from property crimes.
Fostering community ties and collaboration play an important role in helping people hit by disasters deal with the short-term crisis and long term rebuilding efforts.
She also suggests that fraudulent claims for disaster benefits can be reduced in a constructive way. Demanding appropriate verification from applicants while being mindful that the process must move quickly is paramount.
It is too late for some remedies in south Florida — if not already in place — like a computerized cross-verification system among agencies responsible for distributing benefits. However, it is not too late to implement an aggressive and vigilant post-disaster guardianship by government agencies and law enforcement.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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