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Originally published September 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 1, 2005 at 9:29 PM

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A nation watches the looting and asks: Why?

First the hurricane, then the looting. Photographs and videos show triumphant, smiling scavengers brazenly hauling away everything from...

Newhouse News Service

First the hurricane, then the looting.

Photographs and videos show triumphant, smiling scavengers brazenly hauling away everything from food to TVs from ransacked stores.

The images are troubling on many levels: Human behavior at its most desperate. Hordes of people, often of color, stranded with no options. People in a situation we can't fathom behaving in ways we condemn from afar.

But disaster-response researchers are intrigued, especially because this behavior has been far from the norm. Sociologists cite more than 50 years of research showing that widespread looting after a natural disaster is rare.

They cite Hurricane Hugo, the 1989 storm that sliced a massive path of destruction through locations including St. Croix, Puerto Rico, Charleston, S.C., and Charlotte, N.C.

But major looting occurred only in St. Croix, said Kathleen Tierney, sociology professor and director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Researchers later determined that St. Croix differed in several ways from the other areas.

"More than 80 percent of the housing was destroyed," Tierney said. "It's an island; there was nowhere to go. They didn't know when help was going to come. Law enforcement was rendered ineffective. They didn't know when they'd see another meal."

Sounds close to the situation in New Orleans.

Still, images repeated in video loops on 24-hour cable-news networks raise stereotypes. That struck Robert Smith, political-science professor at San Francisco State University. "All the people that appear to be in distress ... have been African American, people coming from the [housing] projects," he said. "All the looters that have been shown are black."

Smith said he's not surprised. He said the neglected people in those communities — those stranded without resources — often are black. But he added that the pictures and footage of the looting "will reinforce the image of black people as criminals."

The population of New Orleans is about 67 percent African American, the fifth-largest percentage among American cities with more than 100,000 population.

Ronald Walters sees "a global issue."

"Black people are no different than any other group of people in the world," said Walters, political-science professor and director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland at College Park. "Explaining [the looting], you have to go far, far beyond skin color."

Walters said any group — black, white, Hispanic, Asian, whatever — would do anything necessary to survive when faced with tragic circumstances, including raiding stores for supplies.

Sociology professor Henry Fischer agreed. He has long studied human response to disasters as head of the Center for Disaster Research and Education at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

But what about the looting of luxury items? Some media images showed people hauling off television sets and DVD players, in an area with no electricity. "That's something we as researchers are going to take a closer look at," he said.

He offered a hypothesis — not an excuse, he stressed: "You'd probably find the people doing this to be very poor. Pretty much they have nothing in their lives. They didn't have the resources to escape, didn't have a car or money to leave.

"Now, on this one occasion, suddenly they think, 'Wow, I can have these things,' for once."

Much of what's being taken are essentials: anything edible, disposable diapers, water and clothes.

"That is the behavior people take under the pressure of survival," said Benigno Aguirre, professor in the department of sociology and criminal justice and the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware in Newark. "This is misconstrued as looting, as thievery."

In disaster, social norms shift, sociologists say. What may be considered criminal or unacceptable under ordinary circumstances becomes reasonable.

"Expectations and social agreements can be suspended ... because the situation is so dire," said Barbara Feldman, associate sociology professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

Observers say it's important to note that most people are behaving.

"The looters are a tiny slither of humanity," said Sheldon Solomon, psychology professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "Most of the folks in and around New Orleans appear to be showing humanity at our best — helpful, honest and genuinely concerned about the welfare of others."

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