Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 14, 2013

Looting or adapting?

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on November 14, 2013

Rice_AP_Aaron Favila

Here is the scene at the looting of a warehouse near Tacloban.  Those are bags of rice being carried away.  (Associated Press photograph by Aaron Favila.)

Major media have been quick to suggest a rapid descent into anarchy.  A report in today’s (November 14) Los Angeles Times begins, “As concerns grew about rampant looting and lawlessness, Philippine security forces sent reinforcements and imposed a nighttime curfew in Tacloban…”

USA Today suggests that security concerns have discouraged some relief efforts.  The most recent OCHA report includes, “Security concerns persist, including harassment and mobbing of people during relief transport and distribution.”

There have also been less prominent reports of something less starkly Hobbesian.  According to NBC News, “Some eight soldiers in the back of a military truck appeared to ignore residents clambering out of the rubble carrying canned food, bags of rice and bottles of water. And in a nearby checkpoint, soldiers waved through residents carrying bags of rice.”

I am not there.  I have only been to the Philippines once, years ago.  I understand that crime has been an increasing problem and there are pockets of armed insurgency.  I don’t pretend to be sure of the situation on the ground.

But I am certain there is a general expectation of panic and mass violence in the aftermath of  disaster.  It is a recurrent theme.  It is usually over-reported.  After-action analysis almost always finds an actual decline in violent crime following a major disaster.  While we look for the bad we often fail to notice the good.

A few years ago Rebecca Solnit examined the aftermath of several catastrophic events and wrote the book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise is Disasters.  She mostly found evidence of altruism, resourcefulness, and courage.

In the picture at the top, what do you see?  Opportunism? Chaos? Greed? Collaboration?  Civil collapse?  Personal initiative?  Crime? Adaptation?

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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 14, 2013 @ 9:17 am

Dr. Daniel Mileti, PhD, coined the term the “therpuetic community” and did much research supporting the concept in US disasters.

I would argue for the limits of the TC and in particular for bioterrorism. But “theft” may be the wrong label when governmental capability is almost nonexistent.

The problem of course is that the “strongest” of the survivors may not share their bounty equitably.

What few fail to realize is that in the 90% [or more?] of the 200+ nation states emergency management
and disaster relief is not a civil government function but left to the military. They are trained to deal with the “enemy”! But even in an humanitarian
role they don’t really act equitably but support the existing political power structure or themselves.

Unfortunately horrors await the survivors in this event. Tothe extent democracy exists in t

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 14, 2013 @ 9:18 am

To the extent democracy exists in these far flung islands it will be sorely tested.

Comment by JD

November 14, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

Disaster research over 40 years has determined that “looting” is largely a myth. Survivors will scrounge for anything that might be useful to sustain themselves. Not looting, not adapting, but surviving.

Yet, as a myth, it remains part of the story arc that the media and the public believe in, even if wrong.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 14, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

JD: In today’s NYT a public official says that Tocloban grocery stores have purposefully not reordered or reopened because of security concerns. The same official says security concerns have been over-blown. The concern — the story arc — is as you suggest very real.

Given your familiarity with the research can you confirm or deny a vague memory on my part? I seem to recall that there are substantive findings that widespread “looting” when it does rarely occur is co-indicated with a loss of sufficient supply exceeding five days. (Which reinforces your survival point.) From a narrow private property perspective the best defense is offense.

Comment by JD

November 15, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

Phil, Quarantelli is generally considered one of the founders of disaster research. Here’s a link to a short paper at the Disaster Research Center that discusses the myth of looting:


A quick google scholar search also came up with this interesting article on the legal and policy results of the “myth”:


I don’t recall the particular research you reference, but the Guardian published an editorial on the same topic today, with an interesting subtitle “that human civilisation is a few hot meals away from total breakdown.”


Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 15, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

JD: Thanks much. Along the same lines, here’s an essay from TIME: Stop Catastrophizing Relief Efforts in the Philippines.

Comment by Django

November 16, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

In this case food is the (not so) strange attractor inspiring a self organizing system.

When ants are attracted to some crumbs on my counter, they just know what to do…nothing needs to be said, they are not worrying about breaking any laws.

I imagine there is not a lot of talking when a hungry mob reaches a tipping point.

The question is how do we channel this type of self organization (through policy, etc.) into consistent stabilizing, behaviors that benefit the whole?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 17, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

Relevant to this discussion:


Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 20, 2013 @ 6:00 am

Another report relevant to this discussion… and to resilience.


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