This audio interview with Adam Montella, Emergency Management & Homeland Security Expert, is no longer available.
This is the second installment in a series of ten articles about the Discovery Channel Series, THE COLONY [airing Tuesdays at 10PM ET/PT], which follows the lives of ten volunteers living in a simulated post-catastrophic environment.
Last night’s episode found the Colonists faced again with a gang of thugs and looters, known as the “Marauders,” who are intent on causing chaos as well as harassing and stealing limited resources from the Colonists.
In the wake of any major catastrophe, there are always some people who take advantage of the situation. History shows that the majority of people will generally do what they can to help those around them. But there also are people who try to benefit from the misfortunes of others. The Marauders represent that segment of society. However, in episode one the Colonists were the ones looting an abandoned store for food and the other supplies necessary for survival.
The show, and this issue, highlights a gray area involved in all disasters. In Hurricane Katrina, as in any other major disaster, there was rampant looting and lawlessness – from residents taking food, diapers, and the other necessities required for basic survival, to people stealing TV sets and other non-essentials from homes and businesses. According to an ABC News story at the time, “New Orleans appeared to descend into anarchy, with reports of rapes in the Superdome and local law-enforcement officials not showing up to combat arson, gunfire, and carjackings in the streets.”
It is expected, even anticipated, that in the aftermath of a catastrophic disaster there will almost always be a period of looting and lawlessness. At some point, though, law-enforcement, EMS, fire, medical, and other emergency personnel will evacuate the affected areas both to protect assets and to save the lives of those who want to return once the danger has passed. This means that, for at least a short period of time, no one will be there to enforce laws or provide relief. So, for the people left behind, including both those who cannot and those who refuse to evacuate, is it acceptable for looting and lawlessness to occur?
In response to the post-Katrina looting and lawlessness in New Orleans, President Bush said there should be a no-tolerance approach to looters. “I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this,” he said, “whether it be looting or price gouging at the gasoline pump, or taking advantage of charitable giving or insurance fraud.”
For those desperate for survival who run out of basic necessities, though, or who take food, water, and medical supplies for their families – or for those who can’t afford to wait for rescuers to come – should they be blamed and held accountable in the aftermath of a catastrophic event?
Of course, feelings about looting are entirely different for those who steal television sets, designer sneakers, and even automobiles in the aftermath of a disaster. Obviously, there is no excuse for this type of behavior and it is not in any way related to the need to survive. It’s simply taking advantage of a lawless environment. Nothing more than that.
One way to prevent or reduce looting for survival in and in the aftermath of a disaster is to educate people on the necessity of being prepared, primarily by having on hand the basic resources required in the event of a disaster (both by those who are left behind and by those who for reasons of their own choose to stay). Another way is to have as many people as possibly evacuate the area.
Some jurisdictions take an aggressive and proactive approach to evacuation – the city of Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, for example. One advantage that city has is its very active Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program. CERT members assist in conducting evacuation notification in cooperation with the city’s Public Safety Department. During Hurricane Bertha in 1996, CERT volunteers were sent into the community to knock on doors, post flyers, and provide information on a one-to-one basis during the hurricane watch phase. With the storm rapidly approaching and the evacuation order given, the teams fanned out across the city aided by bullhorns, electronic signs, and updated information from the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). They achieved a complete, orderly, and safe evacuation in less than four hours. As an added effective punch, the city’s Disaster Plan calls for shutting off the city’s water supply as an added incentive for people to leave.
Daytona Beach Shores is notably smaller than New Orleans, New York City, or THE COLONY’S setting in Los Angeles. However the lessons and methodology learned by Daytona Beach Shores, and other communities from coast to coast, from past disasters remain viable and should be adopted.
Adam Montella is vice president of homeland security and preparedness services for Previstar Inc. and a nationally known emergency-management and homeland-security professional with more than 23 years direct experience in both government and the private sector. He served as the first general manager of emergency management for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the period following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and has served in many other emergency-management positions at all levels of government. A former member of the House Operations Recovery Team of the U.S. House of Representatives and of numerous local, state, national, and international emergency management associations, he also is a well known public speaker in his chosen field and a former recipient of Harvard University’s prestigious Innovations in American Government Award.