Surface    |    Backfill    |    About    |    Contact



Even after accounting for media sensationalism, I was quite surprised at the extent of the looting that has been reported in New Orleans. My surprise came because in the case of the natural disaster with which I'm most familiar -- wildfire -- fears of looting are typically quite overblown.

There's a certain sense to why people, particularly wealthier people, who have been evacuated from the urban-wildland interface due to a fire would fear looting. Their property has just been potentially taken away from them, and not simply by a blameless act of nature. If there is suspicion that the fire was a result of arson or human carelessness, great anger focuses on the person responsible. More immediately, the firefighters who ordered the evacuation become, in a sense, agents of property loss. (This is not entirely irrational. A good proportion of the homes lost in a fire are not burned by the main raging wall of fire as it sweeps through. Rather, they're ignited by sparks or bits of smouldering material left behind by the main fire -- which could be easily swatted out had someone remained in the house.) It's easy enough, then, to fear the further breakdown in property rights represented by looting.

So why is it, then, that there isn't actually much looting after a fire, whereas there is quite a bit after Hurricane Katrina? The most obvious explanation seems to be spatial. Wildfires hit exurban and rural areas, where houses are very spread out, whereas the hurricane hit a densely settled city. It's simply easier for anyone in New Orleans to move around, find places to loot, and make off with the goods. The very stretches of woods that drew people to fire-prone areas also protect them from looting.

Another explanation is economic. I don't mean in the sense that the people of New Orleans were poorer, and hence more inclined to stealing, than the average resident of a fire-prone area -- rich people are no saints, and there are increasing numbers of poor people being pushed into exurbia by gentrification. What I mean is the economic recovery time. The defining feature of exurbia (what makes it different from rural areas) is that it's a residential zone. Your house may burn down, but your office in downtown LA is just fine. New Orleans, on the other hand, was a mixed residential and commerical area. Thus people are looking at several months of not just homelessness but also joblessness. They lack the economic infrastructure to survive the recovery period. Thus a good amount of the New Orleans looting is people taking basic necessities like food.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home