New Orleans & Disaster Sociology

new orleans residents on roof waving at helicopter

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article by David Glennn on Sociology and Hurricane Katrina Disaster Sociologists Study What Went Wrong in the Response to the Hurricanes, but Will Policy Makers Listen?

The article discusses what disaster sociology has to say about the disaster in New Orleans. The article makes a number of good points about panic, command and control, and managing uncertainty.

The article starts up with a discussion of the panic myth:

One of the central tenets of disaster sociology is that most communities can, to a large degree, spontaneously heal themselves. People affected by disaster obviously often need resources from the outside world — food, water, shelter. But that does not mean that disaster victims also need outside direction and coordination, most scholars in the field say.

A prime example of spontaneous cooperation was the extraordinarily successful evacuation of Lower Manhattan during the September 11 attacks. James M. Kendra, an assistant professor of emergency administration and planning at the University of North Texas, estimates that nearly half a million people fled Manhattan on boats — and he emphasizes that the waterborne evacuation was a self-organized volunteer process that could probably never have been planned on a government official’s clipboard.

“Various kinds of private companies, dinner-cruise boats, people with their own personal watercraft, the Coast Guard, the harbor pilots — in very short order, they managed to organize this evacuation,” Mr. Kendra said.

The evacuation in New Orleans, of course, was not so smooth. Disaster sociologists say that they are eager to determine how much chaos and looting actually occurred there, and how much was conjured through rumor and news-media exaggeration.

“The panic myth is a consistent one,” said Russell R. Dynes, a professor emeritus of sociology at Delaware, who was among the founders, in 1963, of the Disaster Research Center at Ohio State University. (The center moved to Delaware in 1985.) “The idea of social breakdown — I’m even pretty damn skeptical of that,” he said. “One of the problems here is TV. If you take a film clip and you run it for five hours, you create a notion that something’s happening.”

In 40 years of disaster research, Mr. Dynes said, he and his colleagues have found very few instances of true social breakdown.

The false idea of postdisaster panic grows partly from simple semantic confusion, said Michael K. Lindell, a psychologist who directs the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University at College Station. “A reporter will stick a microphone in someone’s face and ask, ‘Well, what did you do when the explosion went off?’ And the person will answer, ‘I panicked.’ And then they’ll proceed to describe a very logical, rational action in which they protected themselves and looked out for people around them. What they mean by ‘panic’ is just ‘I got very frightened.’ But when you say ‘I panicked,’ it reinforces this idea that there’s a thin veneer of civilization, which vanishes after a disaster, and that you need outside authorities and the military to restore order. But really, people usually do very well for themselves, thank you.”

At least one scholar, however, tentatively believes that there actually was serious social breakdown in some parts of New Orleans. “One possible explanation,” said John H. Sorensen, a sociologist who serves as a senior researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, “is that this is perhaps the first American disaster since the 1906 [San Francisco] earthquake where a whole urban area has been severely damaged.” The sheer scale of the destruction of physical infrastructure, he suggests, might have made it impossible for the usual sorts of spontaneous cooperative behavior to emerge.

“It gives one pause,” Mr. Sorensen said. “The sum of social-science knowledge about disasters is really based on a number of smaller events. Whether or not that extant knowledge is really applicable to large-scale regional disasters is certainly something that I’ve been thinking about during the last few weeks.”

A related question is whether some police officers and rescue workers in Louisiana abandoned their posts, as local officials and some news accounts have suggested. Gary A. Kreps, a professor emeritus of sociology at the College of William and Mary, wonders whether that might have occurred because some workers were concerned with protecting their own families. “I’m skeptical that, over all, role abandonment was a major problem,” Mr. Kreps said, “but let’s see what we learn from more systematic research.”

Harper’s magazine Oct issue also has an essay The Uses on Disaster on how authorities promote the idea of panic to demonstrate why they are needed. It now appears that initial reports of mayhem in New Orleans seem to have been exaggerated. See for example the BBC article New Orleans violence ‘overstated.’ And New Orleans, like most disasters, was full of examples of self-organization that would gladden an anarchist’s heart.

The Chronicle of Higher Education article goes on to discuss FEMA and Homeland Security. Many disaster scientists feel that it was a mistake to include FEMA in Homeland Security, in particular because this move further promoted an inflexible, inappropriate ‘command and control’ approach to disaster management.

“The structure of the Department of Homeland Security is not conducive to good emergency management,” said William L. Waugh Jr., a professor of public policy at Georgia State University. “It isn’t even conducive to homeland security.” Within the department, Mr. Waugh said, FEMA and other small agencies have not successfully competed for money and attention because they do not mix well with what he calls the “gun-toting” culture of the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies that dominate the department. “They have a propensity to have small groups of loyalists in a room making decisions, closed off from everyone else. No experts on what they’re actually making decisions about.”

Beyond that insular culture, some critics say, the department is also hamstrung by a “command and control” mentality that is ill suited to the realities of disasters.

“One of the things that’s very consistently found,” said Delaware’s Mr. Dynes, “is that in a disaster, decisions are made at lower levels than they are made normally because you’re confronted with a situation, and you can’t get 10 of your colleagues to have a staff meeting to decide what to do. You’ve got to make a decision. So any decision in any organization is going to be made at lower levels than in normal times. And so the idea that anyone at the top could command and control all this activity is idiotic.”

Mr. Lindell, of Texas A&M, agreed, saying he feared that policy makers in Washington had taken the wrong lessons from Katrina. The employees of the Department of Homeland Security, he said, “are mostly drawn from the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and from police departments. They’re firmly committed to a command-and-control model.” (Just a few days ago, President Bush may have pushed the process one step further: He suggested that the Department of Defense take control of relief efforts after major natural disasters.)

The habits of mind cultivated by military and law-enforcement personnel have their virtues, Mr. Lindell said, but they don’t always fit disaster situations. “They come from organizations where they’re dealing with an intelligent adversary. So they want to keep information secret — it’s only shared on a need-to-know basis. But emergency managers and medical personnel want information shared as widely as possible because they have to rely on persuasion to get people to cooperate. The problem with putting FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security is that it’s like an organ transplant. What we’ve seen over the past four years is basically organ rejection.”

The article concludes by quoting Michael K. Lindell, a hazard psychologist at Texas A&M University at College Station who says:

“All of the money is going into homeland security,” Mr. Lindell said. “The solution to the problem in the levees in New Orleans would have been to take all the chemical-protection suits that have been purchased for little tiny towns that are too small to be targets and too far away to assist, and fill those chemical-protection suits with sand, and use those to fill the levees. It would have been a better use.”

Thanks to Gary Kofinas for suggesting I take a look at the Chronicle article.

2 thoughts on “New Orleans & Disaster Sociology”

  1. I recently was pleased to find a citation of the Horne/Orr article, ” Assessing Behaviors that Create Resilient Organizations” (1998) in a Presentation Paper “Observations on Building and Maintaining Resilient Buildings and Human Settlements to withstand Disaster Impact”. Despite the implications of the title the presentation dealt primarily with “commmunities” as the focal point. The presentaion was made by Ian Davis ( Visiting Professor at the Resilience Centre at Cranfield University, UK )_ during an international conference August 3-5, 2005.

    My original work drew inspiration from natural eco-systems as a model for resilient systems. Recently I came across a concept from this area that intrigued me- spatial heterogeneity or “patchiness”. This is an idea that is apparently overlooked by a number of ecosystem analysts who tend to use an assumption of system homogeneity to better work with designing eco-system models. Spatial Heterogeneity postulates that within a defined ecosytem space there are subtle variations of conditions that make differening patches more or less resilient in the face of disturbances. In an earth science system these differences could include soil moisture, bacterial colony density, vegetation quality, etc. which make a defined area more or less capable of absorbing the impact of a “disaster” and rebound quickly.

    I believe that this concept of “patchiness” is an idea that has some application to assessing resilience in human communities. At a local level individual subcomponents of a defined community have varying degrees of potential resilience in the face of a natural or man-made disaster. In the case of the recent Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans I am sure that analysis will show that some neighborhoods “pulled together” to minimize life and personal property loss while others in close proximity (but the same socio-economic status) showed a much higher negative impact from the disaster. The subtle difference of cohesiveness factors in the various communities make each one more or less resilient in their response to impending disaster. Furthermore I believe that the individual residents in each of these neighborhoods are likely to know the degree of cohesiveness and can mentally calculate a “resilience index” for their neighborhood. If residents in a given area have an internal assumption of that area having a higher resilience capability then I believe that they will take more effective action to act more proactively in the face of approaching disaster. On the other hand residents of an area that is assumed to have a lower cohesiveness (resilience) level may be slower to respond or rebuild.

    I have informally observed this factor at work in my own local middle-class neighborhoods in Arizona (USA). My particular neighborhood has what I would calculate as a low cohesiveness level. Residents are cordial but rarely interact in an extended fashion with each other on the street. It is a short street with approximately 20 houses. Many residents only seem to know the names or family composition of houses directly on either side of them. There is no clear neighborhood identity and no efforts to initiate “mingling”. I have lived in the same house for 10 years but still rarely physically see other residents who live on this street even though the turnover in housing is low with the exception of 1-2 rental homes on the street.

    In an area located 1-2 streets away with the same street size and socio-economic/family composition the difference is obvious. Neighbors clearly know each other up/down the street and call each other by name in greeting. Casual observation shows visiting back & forth among neighbors all along the length of the street and group activities among neighbors occurs periodically. There is a clear difference in neighborhood identity and cohesiveness even to a casual observer.

    There may even be a “stranger attractor” element at work in differing neighborhoods to borrow a concept from Chaos Theory. New residents move into these neighborhoods and either fit the mold or quickly learn to adapt. I have observed families move into my neighborhood and try mightly for a few months to inject some “cohesiveness” into dealings with residents along the street. After a period of time this effort dissipates from a lack of response and new residents adapt or move in search of a different neighborhood. More often than not the new residents fit the mold from the beginning and may even indicate that the “quietness” of the neighborhood is what initially attracted them to it. In my own case it was clear from the first months until today , 10 years later, that interaction expectations among residents would be low. Despite periodic short-burst probes to change this level it has remained cosnsistent for residents along the street. The clues were all there from the beginning for those who were attuned to them.

    Other neighborhoods clearly function in a vastly different way with neighborhood residents openly greeting prospective house-hunters and buyers with open “chattiness” about the neighborhood and it’s charms. The cohesiveness of the neighborhood is evident to even casual passerbys.

    The actual or potential “resilience index” of various neighborhoods which are often in close proximity to each other makes up the social “patchiness” of a habitation area. As disaster management planners design strategies to respond to potential disaster events they (like eco-system analysts) frequently assume a homogeneity or uniformity of factors across neighborhood areas even within same socio-economic zones and predicate their response actions on this basis. Thus, as I’m sure we will find, in the poorer neighborhoods in New Orleans during the evacuation phase some neighborhoods pulled together to share gasoline supplies, assist confused/distraught residents, formed caravans of evacuees and made sure the neighborhood was secure before leaving it while others adopted an “every man for himself” approach and left less able residents adrift. Planners could (in fact, should) flag lower resilience neighborhoods to maximize available support resources in any disaster management plan requiring whole neighborhood response. Given my belief that the resilience index for neighborhoods remains stable over long periods of time this identification effort could prove worthwhile.

    A properly prepared “non-stigmatizing” questionaire process administered to residents of specific geographical areas could yield the results needed since I believe residents can clearly identify the cohesiveness of their neighborhoods. A social “Resilience Patchiness Map” on an area could assist police/fire and other emergency response personnel to target areas where confusion, resistence to instructions, persons left behind due to age/disability/resource limitations are likely to be higher. It could also assist post-disaster support personnel to know where organization and assistance may be needed more immediately.

    Many indications point toward a coming period of a higher frequency of social and natural disasters in the world. The disaster in New Orleans should lead us to examine some of the assumptions about uniformity or homogeneity of factors used in planning to prepare for and manage the aftermath of future disaster events. The drain on financial, manpower and organizational resources is likely to be imense and any assistance in the prioritization process could pay big dividends.

    John Horne
    Resilience Consultant
    ChannelMarker Consulting
    1531 E. Weathervane Lane
    Tempe, AZ USA
    (480) 491-8259

  2. Over Analysis creates confusion. The media lied, People who are used to depending on Government will continue to depend on it. Other areas affected by Katrina fared much better.

    It really is a simple analysis. The Government fails (as usual). People who are used to being dependent will continue to run the same pattern. People are followers and creatures of habit.

    Anyone who has the ability to think can figure this out.

    I was in Katrina, and our neighbors that had previously not known each other banned togather to recover, but none was on welfare (not taught to depend on government). The rich man and the poor man stood in line for ice and water without conflict. There was very little looting because we stood togather against the small number of rif-raf in the area. All were equal since social status, income, or even who one may have known was not a factor (you could not call for help).

    Propaganda by the media and Government ruled the day in New Orleans during Katrina because of how the affected population was taught to respond.

    It really is that simple.

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