In the wake of the massive natural disasters Hurricane Harvey and Irma, an analysis into the common types of crimes that occur in the context of natural disasters is warranted. New York has felt its share of disaster weather, wildfires are burning across Montana and California, and man will always be at the mercy of Mother Nature. So, what kinds of crimes usually happen after a disaster hits, and how are they usually handled?
The first thing many people think of when they hear ‘crime’ and ‘natural disaster’ together is looting. But, looting is often difficult to prosecute. First, the damage caused by the disaster itself can make it difficult to determine if the cause of such damage was looting. Additionally, different jurisdictions define looting differently, with many declining to characterize it as simple theft. Furthermore, sometimes circumstances faced by the survivors of such a disaster make it unconscionable to prosecute their behavior: for instance, if someone stole food and supplies from a grocery store in order to survive, this would be a difficult crime to prosecute from a moral standpoint. As a result of the concerns for looting, most cities institute curfews in order to prevent looting in neighborhoods that are evacuated and vacant, without power and vulnerable to predators.
The great thing about major disasters in our country always seems to be the massive influx of financial help which pours in from around the country. The downside is that many people take advantage of this windfall by propagating fraud. From insurance fraud, to government benefits, and even to defrauding charities and nonprofits, fraud can be a difficult crime to prosecute as well. Agencies are usually focused on getting the help where it appears to be needed both, and therefore verification checks are often forgotten or ignored. Unfortunately, research has shown that if benefits are more difficult to obtain, there appears to be fewer instances of fraud. It is a difficult balancing act for sure.
Reports of rape and sexual assault often increase immediately after a natural disaster. Women are often the sole caretakers in their family, particularly in lower socioeconomic areas. This can mean they are particularly vulnerable, especially if they have to venture out in areas that are unmonitored by law enforcement, and without power or other resources. Additionally, domestic violence tends to increase in the aftermath. Unfortunately, law enforcement is always stretched extra thin after a disaster hits, meaning domestic violence can go unreported or help for the victims can be delayed.
The good thing is that, for the most part, reports of looting and property crime are often exaggerated in the wake of a disaster. To put it in immediate perspective, there were 63 arrests of people for looting the day after Harvey in Houston. Houston has a population of over 5 million people. (Less than half a percent). Much of the stories about rape and murder in the Superdome after Katrina were also found to be untrue or prone to hyperbole. Some things that cities can do in order to reduce crimes in the wake of natural disaster can be to start making mental health and family services available simultaneously with the other agencies and benefits. As for benefits fraud, a computerized verification system across charities and agencies will help reduce the chance for those taking advantage. And property crimes are often reduced by a strong presence of law enforcement combined with curfews.