Just a few hours before superstorm Sandy made landfall on New York last Monday and residents scrambled to evacuate the city’s waterfront neighborhoods, a 31-year-old man was murdered in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, just a few blocks from the rising ocean.
The five-day period during the storm and its immediate aftermath saw 15 shooting victims in all and a total of 1,061 crimes committed, according to the New York Police Department.
Crime in New York didn’t stop for Sandy. But contrary to public perceptions that catastrophes lead to widespread looting and general lawlessness, New York City has actually experienced a decrease in criminal activity because of the superstorm.
The city underwent a double-digit percentage decline in most types of serious crime last week, according to the NYPD. Murder fell by 86 percent and rape by 44 percent. Larceny declined by 48 percent and robbery dipped by 30 percent. The only increase was for burglary — but even that was by a mere 3 percentage points.
This decline is in keeping with what sociologists and disaster experts have discovered about previous natural disasters in the United States: crime goes down in the immediate aftermath as citizens focus their energies on survival and organizing their recovery.
“What happens is what scientists call the emergence of a therapeutic community,” explained Dr. Andrew Prelog, a research associate with Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University. “There’s this general altruistic behavior going on and when that occurs, there’s much less chance people will victimize one another.”
Prelog spent several years analyzing crime data in the aftermath of U.S. natural disasters and found that while local media tend to focus on criminal activity at a higher rate following catastrophes, the actual instances of violent crime and property damage are reduced.
Nonetheless, if previous statistical studies of natural disasters hold true, New York City can expect to see an increase in crime in the coming year. Sociologists explain these increases with what they call the “social disorganization effect” of natural disasters — when the immediate therapeutic community dissolves and the consequences of lost homes, jobs, money and the destruction of swaths of neighborhoods are felt.
Studies of a wide range of disasters across America show a pattern of increased crime following disasters. After the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980, Othello, Washington saw a 27 percent increase in the number of assaults within seven months and a 10 percent increase in disorderly conduct. Hurricane Carla hit Galveston, Texas, in 1961 and led to a 30 percent increase in auto theft.
Research has found an even stronger correlation between natural disasters and increases in domestic violence, according to a 2009 paper for the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. Hurricane Andrew led to such a large surge in domestic violence cases that additional judges had to be hired in Florida to handle the increase.
New York City’s high levels of economic inequality might further exacerbate the long-term spike in crime following superstorm Sandy. Where extreme levels of structural inequality prevail, sociologists have seen higher spikes in crime rates following disasters.
“New York is the most unequal place in the United States in terms of the gap between rich and poor,” said Prelog. “I would venture to say that based on my research, the coupling of the disaster with high inequality, you’ll see a jump in crime rates.”