spea magazine

Speaking Out: Learning from Katrina—What Our Experts Say

Crimes in the City

Tom Stuckey

Tom Stuckey The recent hurricanes triggered a number of diverse responses for me, as I am sure they did for many. As a person, it was nearly inconceivable to witness the kind of devastation that occurred in Katrina’s wake and the relatively lesser damage from Rita. As a former police officer, I watched with a certain amount of pride as most officers and other public servants tried to do their jobs under nearly impossible circumstances.

Yet, there is also a tremendous sadness at the reports of a few New Orleans police officers succumbing to baser instincts and committing acts of theft. I also saw the extremely painful lessons that were learned when worst-case scenarios come true.

Fortunately, at least in the short-run, these lessons were not lost on governments and citizens in Rita’s path. But even that relatively successful evacuation presented public safety officials with a number of important lessons. It remains to be seen how much will be learned to help better prepare for future disasters, natural or otherwise. What is painfully clear is that the logistical issues in moving very large numbers of people in a short period of time require a great deal of advance planning. Governments cannot assume that citizens will be able to take appropriate actions to protect themselves without clear, specific, and timely direction from their local, state, and national governments. Hopefully, local, state, and national governments will learn from the destruction of Katrina, and perhaps as much from the relatively limited destruction of Rita.

As a teacher of theories of crime, I found the reports of crime to be especially disturbing. Tales of armed gangs engaged in awful acts of theft, assault, and even rape and homicide, both in the city at-large and in the supposed shelters of the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center, combined with reports of shots being fired at rescue helicopters, seemed too awful to imagine.

These actions seemed to strain our understanding of human behavior. Do people turn into savages overnight when the normal instruments of social control disappear? As it turns out, there was very little to explain. As a sociologist familiar with the dynamics of mass hysteria, I cannot say that I was particularly surprised when nearly all of these reports turned out to be false, magnified by a mass media hungry for details and apparently willing to believe just about anything. Oddly, the number of crimes that have been reported may not have been more than a city the size of New Orleans might expect on a “normal” weekend. So, one of the most important lessons from recent hurricanes is that it is important to get the facts. The mass media covering the event failed miserably in some respects regarding the reporting of crime.

I can only wonder how many others might have been saved from rooftops had rescue helicopters not been grounded to protect the pilots from imaginary lawless gangs shooting at them. What is most clear from these recent hurricanes is that we still have many things to learn about disaster preparedness. It remains to be seen whether these lessons will be taken seriously or whether history is doomed to repeat itself.

Thomas Stuckey is an assistant professor at SPEA, IUPUI. His focus is on criminology, criminal justice, and political sociology. He belongs to the American Society of Criminology and the American Criminal Justice Association. Professor Stuckey received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Iowa in 2001.