My body contracted with grief in anticipation of the imminent landing of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines over the weekend. This primal response to the imminent danger was prompted by my body’s remembrance of prior similar trauma. You see, I (and others) have first- hand experience with this devastation having lived through a similar although less powerful storm. So when I heard the media reports of people struggling to find food, water and other necessities, I was relieved when they openly stated that the people “were not looters.” They were merely trying to survive. I had to ask myself what was the distinction between these survivors and those of Hurricane Katrina? What were the determinant factors that distinguished their need from those of others? Were they environmental? Was it the wind capacity? Or, was it geographical?
I ask these questions because, the night after my world was changed, I lay on the floor in the home of the kind woman who took in my family and others the night our homes blew apart. I panicked when I realized that I needed items that, until then, were the farthest from my mind. Like tampons. Did I have any that were not ruined in the rainstorms? If not, how and where could I get some? Were the drugstores going to open? I had gone shopping in advance of the storm so I knew we would have food but it would have to be cooked soon as the electricity and gas were shut off. As we pooled our communal resources to survive for what we thought would be the next few days, it became clear that we could not rely on our waning food supply. In reality, it took months for the island to recover from Hurricane Hugo. We sat outside in the heat in our makeshift camp communities and like rams in the collective bush, strangers drove through in trucks distributing food and warm beer. We gladly accepted them like manna from heaven and offered well wishes and blessings to our angels of mercy raising bottles of warm beer in toast to their kindness.
So where did the food and warm beverages come from? Looters of course! In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, many took survival into their own hands and broke into local stores and businesses seeking food, candles, beverages (water was not even sold by the bottle in those days) diapers and other necessities. Some of the larger grocery store owners responded quickly by standing on the rooftops of the facilities with shotguns and shooting into the crowds that compromised the security of their businesses. For most of us, we just hoped for the best and tried to find a way out of the increasingly dangerous environment.
So when the looters’ trucks circumnavigated the island’s rough terrain in their humanitarian rescue missions, armed with food, batteries and beverages, we viewed them as heroes, not looters. They did not try sell to the people they encountered, nor price gouge them like many of the businesses that did open – they just tried to help. So I again ask the question. What are the unique variables and circumstances that distinguish looters from survivors?