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More Evidence and Future Considerations for a Criminology of Disaster

By Kelly Frailing and Dee Wood Harper, authors of Toward a Criminology of Disaster - What We Know and What We Need to Find Out

Since the publication of our book, Toward a Criminology of Disaster: What We Know and What We Need to Find Out in 2017, a number of events have brought the need for a criminology of disaster into even clearer focus. For example, the busy 2017 Atlantic hurricane season gave us Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston, Texas and Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico. Though investigations are still in the early stages and are challenging for a number of reasons, not the least of which are reporting and access to and accuracy of official data, it appears that crime occurred in the wake of both of these storms. Burglary increased in Houston in the week that Harvey hit, compared to that same week in the previous two years, and murder, robbery, aggravated assault, and burglary were all higher in San Juan in September of 2017 when Maria hit than they were a year later, in September of 2018

And this is to say nothing of other types of disasters, such as the Camp Fire in California in November of 2018, nor of disasters outside the U.S., such as Cyclone Idai in March of 2019. The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. The town of Paradise was particularly hard hit, with much of the loss of life and property occurring there. Nearly a year later, tap water is undrinkable and residents still mourn for the community they once knew. Cyclone Idai was one of the worst tropical cyclones on record to affect Africa and it was followed in short order by Cyclone Kenneth. More than 1,000 people died in the two cyclones in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Comoros, and the catastrophic damage, especially the widespread flooding, left over 2 million people in need of assistance. The frequency and destructiveness of these events, we believe, calls for more attention and more focused policy initiatives to mitigate the harm that is a direct result of the events, and the consequent harm resulting from a variety of criminal activities in the wake of the events. 

It would be remiss not to include a brief discussion of climate change and its consequences for disasters and disaster crime. As global temperatures rise, more water vapor can enter into and stay in the atmosphere, leading to more intense storms, such as cyclones and hurricanes; the melting ice caps add more water to the earth’s oceans, meaning coastal flooding may be more severe when it does occur. Moreover, higher temperatures, more humidity, and a smaller difference in temperature between the poles and the equator can lead to more intense cycles of drought and flood, with areas receiving their yearly rainfall from one or two strong storms rather than a number of smaller ones, and prolonged droughts increasing susceptibility to fires. And as certain areas on earth become less habitable due to more frequent extreme weather events, those populations may be displaced and put at greater risk for victimization. Insofar as we can expect more intense disasters, we should also expect crime, particularly burglary, sexual assault, and fraud, to follow in their wakes. 

In the U.S., the federal agency tasked with responding to all manner of disaster affecting the United States is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Though FEMA’s mission statement is to help people before, during, and after disasters, this help has not typically included crime abatement. The recognition of crime in disaster, the factors that facilitate it, and steps to prevent it, currently fall to states, local municipalities, and increasingly, to individuals. With that reality, it is imperative that disaster criminologists continue to build a body of theoretical and empirically grounded research that can be translated into action plans that can mitigate against crime in the wake of disaster.   

In our book, we discuss a number of disaster crime reduction measures, including the provision of formal guardianship during and after the event, a thorough and timely response by local, state, and federal agencies that allows survivors to have their needs met, and the longer term improvement of socioeconomic conditions for areas impacted or likely to be impacted by disasters. To this already challenging list, we can add mitigate climate change. Reducing disaster crime may seem a small reason to fight for the future of the planet, perhaps little compared to addressing environmental unemployment in the U.S., for example, but to those who are and will be impacted by disasters, it is as important as any.