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Flooded Streets and Flooded Emotions: The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

by Joel A. Dvoskin, Ph.D., ABPP
Diplomate in Forensic Psychology
University of Arizona College of Medicine

Why would people loot TVs during an emergency? Why would people in need shoot at those who are trying to help them? These are questions I'm hearing often since Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

These questions carry a fair amount of baggage. Most importantly, they are based on media accounts that I am personally convinced were designed to dramatize events and make the networks money. As usual, the most dramatic events, which may have been quite rare, were shown repeatedly on TV, creating the false impression that they were more prevalent and common. This is what Professor Michael Perlin calls "The Vividness Heuristic."

That being said, they still beg an answer.

Bert Pepper has written that there are two pathways to violence, broadly stated as cognitive and affective. It would be difficult to defend as "cognitive" the act of stealing a TV when there is no electricity and you are may soon die of thirst or starvation. Shooting at a helicopter that may be coming to save you is similarly senseless. So let's focus on the affective or emotional path.

Research suggests that two affective states, especially when combined, play a major role in violence, especially impulsive or destructive violence (sometimes also referred to as expressive violence). Those two affective states are fear and anger. See, for example, Bruce Link's work on threat-control override symptoms, Raymond Novaco's large and great body of work on anger, and the MacArthur Risk Study. If I had lost everything, and was under the impression (rightly or wrongly) that people didn't care, if I were starved for information about what was going to happen to me, and if I thought that, no matter what I did, I was going to die early and unnecessarily, it would make me angry and afraid.

Numerous studies of violence and crime suggest that stress (especially negative stress) from a variety of sources combine to increase crime. The communities of poverty of course have many of the most stressful life circumstances, most importantly being unsafe. Many of the children and former children of the poorest parts of New Orleans have never been safe. (See Carl Bell's work on the horrible outcomes with kids who have seen their brothers killed, by gangs or police. See also Bruce Perry's current "Call to Action" on The Zero.) Added to the chronically stressful state of the poorest parts of New Orleans, now comes the humongous stress of 20 feet of floodwater. One would expect incidents of violence and suicide to increase in such circumstances.

Further, not everyone starts out an equal distance from violence. There is a plethora of data to demonstrate that a person's history of prior violence correlates to violence in the future, and that psychopathy correlates to future violence. This would suggest that in any circumstance, people with prior histories of violence and/or people who can be accurately termed as psychopaths and/or people who are actively abusing alcohol and illegal drugs (especially stimulants) would be more likely to take the "bait" of anger and fear and act out with apparently senseless violence. Whether this is who did it is of course an empirical question that may not be answered, especially if the "bad guys" are not caught.

Finally, there are the obvious situational aspects. In regard to shootings, having a gun increases the chances of using a gun, so widespread availability of guns is part of the picture. Poverty has been shown to correlate to crime and violent crime in a plethora of studies, and the people left behind were disproportionately poor. Finally, and probably the most important situational aspect, is that there was apparently a general sense of chaos, which seems to correlate to violence. This is not quite as clear empirically, but those of us who have worked in prison know that inmates fear prisons with too little order as much or more than they fear prisons with too much. Also, as noted above, the hurricane and the floods added an overdose of stress to an already stressed community. It is predictable that some members would go "over the edge" in one direction or another. So we see all of the predictable consequences of stress overdose, including depression, anxiety and panic attacks, suicide, violence towards others, etc.

If you don't want to have violence during a natural disaster, it would seem as though government at all levels should strive for the following conditions:

  1. Clear, unambiguous and timely communication:
    1. Between and among relief entities;
    2. Between and among public safety agencies; and
    3. From officials to the affected public.
  2. Affected and endangered people should feel that maximum effort is being expended to save them.
  3. People should feel that the benefits of efforts are being distributed on a basis that is fair (for example, the most vulnerable people receive the most help, or even first-come, first-served).
  4. Reduction of waste, especially visible waste, which contributes to a sense of chaos.
  5. Communications regarding the maintenance of order should be non-threatening. "Shoot to kill" orders are threats, and threats increase rather than decrease feelings of anger and fear, thus in my opinion increasing the risk of violence. Instead, public safety officials should script their troops to deliver safety-related message. For example, "We are here to protect you and to keep everyone safe" is far superior to "Drop that loaf of bread or I'll shoot."
  6. Relief and public safety personnel should be given ongoing support to assist them in avoiding despair or panic, because they are role models for the public. Most importantly, they must at all times know what is going on and why, to the degree that it is reasonable to let them know. These are the "marketers" of the relief strategy. If you need people to do something, you have to tell them clearly what you want them to do, model the behavior, and then refrain from punishing them for doing it.
  7. Public statements by various political actors should stress unity of purpose (to save the endangered citizens) instead of political opportunism or demagoguery. Everybody knows that we have two parties leading us, and if they choose the moment of my peril to spit on each other's shoes, then how am I supposed to believe that my safety is the first thing on anyone's agenda? A great example is the leadership shown by Presidents Clinton and Bush (Sr.), who have twice now chosen to stress the common ground of serving America's most needy instead of serving their political parties. Please note that this statement is aimed at both parties. What a wonderful opportunity to show the world that America's leaders really care about the American people; instead we get press conferences claiming that the President is either a hero or Lucifer.
  8. News flash to politicians: This is not about you. For once, for the sake of God, let it not be about you.
  9. News flash to the people who do news flashes: It's not about you, either.
  10. Finally, as the great philosophers Bill and Ted said best, "Be excellent to each other."

For more information about Dr. Joel A. Dvoskin, or to read more articles by this leading leading forensic psychologist, click here.


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