Residents of the hard hit areas of Meeanee and Awatoto banded together to set up road blocks to stop opportunists amid reports of looting and other criminal activity following the storm. Photo: Bonnie Sumner

Stories of looting in the aftermath Cyclone Gabrielle may serve to bring people together in response to a perceived common threat – a grieving and terrified community finding someone to blame. But, as Dr Robert Bartholomew writes, we should be cautious about scapegoating people. 

Imagination frames events unknown, in wild, fantastic

shapes of hideous ruin, and what it fears, creates.

– Hannah More, 1838

There has been public outrage in response to reports of widespread looting and gang activity in flood-ravaged regions of New Zealand in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle’s path of destruction.

That some people who would take advantage of their fellow Kiwis in their time of need has unsurprisingly generated anger, with some residents in the affected areas taking the law into their own hands by setting up roadblocks and arming themselves. Some politicians are calling for harsher penalties for those convicted of looting in areas under a state of emergency. Yet the extent of looting and lawlessness is unclear, with politicians at odds with each other, and making contradictory claims.

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Police Minister Stuart Nash is evidently certain of what is going on, having warned gang leaders to get their members to “pull your bloody head in, get your animals off the streets… they have whānau and family affected as well. Get out and start helping them”.

It is neither appropriate nor helpful to refer to bikers or gang members or anyone else, as “animals”.

We need to remember that the immediate aftermath of disasters is typically akin to the ‘fog of war’ where fear, uncertainty, frustration, grief, melancholy, sleep depravity, and inhibited communication channels can often result in rumours running rife and being perceived as fact.

It can be difficult to unravel fact from fiction in normal life, let alone following a disaster. What we do know is that studies consistently show that disasters bring out the best in people and draw them together – and that includes gang members, who are people too.

Since the early 1960s, the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware has deployed field researchers to the scene of over 700 earthquakes, floods and other events around the world. Their findings have been remarkably consistent – the overwhelming majority pitch in and help their fellow victims. For disasters occurring in Western countries, looting is extremely rare, yet it is common for the media to pick up on any criminal activity that does occur, especially stealing in the early aftermath of a disaster.

Whether it is the sinking of the Titanic, the collapse of the Twin Towers or the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, these events bring out the best that humanity has to offer. Most people remain calm, reach out to support their community, and carry on.

Many people may recall accounts of widespread looting in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Long-term studies of this event found that erroneous reports of widespread looting led to the formation of militia groups who created barricades that inhibited assistance reaching people in need. Furthermore, TV images of people scavenging shops during Katrina were misleading as most of the items taken were bare essentials: food, water and clothing.

Most of those affected by Katrina were poor and black and those who took what they hadn’t paid for likely depended on what they took for survival. This only fed into the criminal stereotype.

In New Zealand, Māori are disproportionately represented in gangs and represent over 50 percent of the prison system. The stereotype of the criminal Māori can render them vulnerable to arrest for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, particularly in times of disaster.

Stories of looting in the aftermath Cyclone Gabrielle may serve to bring people together in response to a perceived common threat, a grieving and terrified community finding someone to blame. Bikers and others who sit on the margins of society are easy targets who make for convenient scapegoats.

Instead of rushing to judgment, we should proceed with caution and wait for the facts to emerge.

Dr Robert Bartholomew is an honorary senior lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at Auckland University.

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