Looters Make Off with Merchandise

views updated

Looters Make Off with Merchandise


By: Eric Gay

Date: August 30, 2005

Source: Eric Gay/AP Photo

About the Photographer: This photograph was taken by the Associated Press photographer Eric Gay soon after Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. and several Latin American nations in August, 2005.


This photograph was taken on a street in the city of New Orleans. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a Category three storm, made landfall not far to the east of New Orleans. An official order had already been given to evacuate the city, but this was not possible for thousands of residents, especially those too poor to own cars. As engineers had often warned could happen, the hurricane's storm surge (rise in water level caused by high winds and low barometric pressure) breached several levees keeping the salty waters of Lake Pontchartrain out of the city. About eighty percent of the city was flooded, some in water several stories deep, some in water only a few feet or inches deep. Aid from Federal and State sources did not reach the city for days, and some residents took what they needed from stores, including such items as food, dry socks and shoes, disposable diapers, and bot-tled water. There was also opportunistic theft of jewelry, alcohol, and weapons.

Reports of chaotic violence in New Orleans were widespread in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "Rape and Anarchy in New Orleans," read the cover story of the New York Post for September 2, 2005; "Despair and Lawlessness Grip New Orleans," read the front-page banner headline of the New York Times for the same day. Reports of snipers firing at rescue helicopters and ambulances, rampant murder, rape gangs, and the like appeared on numerous TV network news programs, including those of CNN, Fox, and ABC. The words "looting and violence" were often used together. A New Orleans SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) police team commander was quoted in the New York Times for September 11, 2005 as saying that "murders were occurring" and that persons who had taken refuge in the city's Convention Center were being terrorized "every night" by "armed groups of men" and rape gangs.



See primary source image


Media coverage of the social aftermath of Katrina is in some ways typified by this picture. Although the persons in this photograph are denoted "looters" by the Associated Press, there is no way to tell from the photo exactly what they are taking or why. Widespread use of the term "looting" to describe people taking items that they needed for survival as well as those seizing luxuries or weapons helped foster a distorted nationwide impression of total civil breakdown in New Orleans during the flood period: a USA Today headline for Sep. 2, 2005 read, "'The Looters, They're Like Cockroaches'.' Reports did appear, though relatively rarely, noting that some of the "looting" was driven by necessity. For example, on August 31 the Canadian TV network CTV reported an interview with two New Orleans police officers who were standing guard as employees of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel filled laundry bins with snack foods, medicines, and bottled water taken from a drugstore. "This is for the sick," an Officer Jeff Jacob was quoted as saying. "We can commandeer whatever we see fit, whatever is necessary to maintain law."

Eventually, stories appeared that discredited almost all of the more extreme reports of anarchy in New Orleans. The New Orleans Picayune reported on September 26 that the official police count of violent deaths in the city during the flood period totaled only four—not particularly high for that span of time, given that New Orleans would normally see approximately two hundred homicides in a year. Over a month after the floods subsided, representatives of the Air Force, Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, and Louisiana National Guard could not confirm a single incident of guns being fired at rescue helicopters, although reports of such events were widely credited during rescue efforts. Stories of ambulances being fired at were also retracted. One crime category in which the stories of disorder may have been less exaggerated is rape: reports have emerged suggesting that over forty rapes may have taken place in the city during the flood period.

Because dramatic stories tend to be more marketable, crime is chronically overreported in the U.S. media, and not only during extraordinary emergencies such as the flooding of New Orleans. Between 1990 and 1998, American TV network news time devoted to crime stories increased by a factor of 4.73 even while actual crime rates were flat or declined in almost all categories; homicide arrests, for example, dropped 32.9% in the same period. Homicides account for only .1 to .2 percent of arrests, but approximately twenty-eight percent of all crimes reported on evening news programs are homicides. Similarly, much of the "looting" reported in New Orleans—no one knows how much—was survival-driven commandeering of supplies in a context where aid from Federal and other sources had broken down so badly that bipartisan Congressional hearings were held to investigate.

Reporting patterns have a strong influence on public perceptions of crime. In June 1993, only five percent of those polled by the Washington Post and ABC named crime as "the most important issue facing the country." In the next few months (October 1993 to January 1994), the number of minutes devoted to crime by network TV news jumped from sixty-seven minutes a month to 157 minutes a month; when polled in February 1994, thirty-one percent of those polled named crime as the biggest issue in the country, a six fold increase. Yet crime itself had remained approximately flat in this period. In forming an accurate concept of crime patterns, whether national trends or local surges, quantity of media coverage is not a reliable metric. Scholars rely on sources such as the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports and (often cited as more reliable because based on more uniform methods of data collection) the Bureau of Justice Statistics annual National Crime Victimization Survey. Although these sources also must be handled skeptically, they are evidence-based rather than ratings-driven.


Web sites

CTV.ca news staff. "Looters Take Advantage of Katrina Devastation." Aug. 31, 2005. 〈http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20050830_hur-ricane_katrina_050830/〉 (accessed March 7, 2006).

Jackson, Janine, and Jim Naureckas. "Crime Contradictions: U.S. News Illustrates Flaws in Crime Coverage." Extra! May/June 1994. 〈http://www.fair.org/index/〉 (accessed March 7, 2006).

Yassin, Jaime Omar. "Demonizing the Victims of Katrina: Coverage painted hurricane survivors as looters, snipers and rapists." Extra! November/December 2005. 〈http://www.fair.org/index/〉 (accessed March 7, 2006).