On November 10, 1979, a freight train hauling cars with five different chemicals derailed at a level crossing in the suburban city of Mississauga, Ontario, just west of Toronto. Because they could see and hear propane tanks exploding and could smell chlorine, the Peel Regional Police Force decided to evacuate most of city, or about 217,000 people. Once the evacuation decision was made, the police made it known in every possible way:

  • They told the media—including local radio, television and cable and the national media;
  • They were quite explicit about who had to leave—they released maps of the areas affected so people could see their homes were in the evacuation zone;
  • They sent officers door to door, covering every private home and every apartment;
  • They followed those officers along every street with police cars with loud hailers broadcasting the evacuation decision; and
  • They were specific about what people should do and where they should go.

For example, police told individuals if they had private vehicles they should keep driving until they passed the police perimeter. Those who did not have private vehicles were informed that Mississauga Transit would take care of them. Police instructed people to find their own accommodation if possible. If they had nowhere to go, a shelter had been opened by the Red Cross at Square One, the city’s largest shopping centre.

Because of the timing of the incident—it occurred just minutes before midnight on a Saturday night—offices were closed as were most stores. However, in addition to telling people to leave their homes, the police also ordered an evacuation of a number of health facilities, including the Mississauga General Hospital. To do this they called on the Metro Toronto ambulance service which quickly canvassed all area hospitals to determine bed availability, then sent roughly 200 ambulance and other medical transport vehicles to Mississauga. With the help of the police, who established clear routes between Mississauga and other area hospitals, the ambulance service was able to move most patients directly from Mississauga to another hospital which could deal properly with that type of patient—and which knew the patient was coming. The only hiccup occurred when a physician ordered the ambulance service to move some patients from the Mississauga General to his hospital. Those patients had to be moved again when that hospital was also evacuated.

Not everything went perfectly. The evacuation area had to be expanded and those who took shelter at Square One moved to another location. Some people refused to move and police had neither the time nor the inclination to force them to go. (They did however note who had remained behind so they could reach them in case of emergency.)

Mississauga occurred more than a quarter of a century ago and was hailed as an extremely well managed evacuation. It seems reasonable to ask: if it was possible to do things so well then, why was it do difficult to do them equally well in New Orleans?

Of course, there were some differences, including some that made things easier in Mississauga. For one thing, the incident occurred late on a Saturday night on a holiday weekend. Most people were at home with their families and most had their own vehicles. There were also plenty of roads for them to take as they left. Traffic was not much of a problem. For another, the residents of Mississauga were affluent compared to those of New Orleans. Most could afford private accommodation if they did not have family or friends to take them in. And—except right around the derailment—there was no destruction in Mississauga. Yet the Mississauga evacuation occurred after an unexpected derailment. Unlike the situation in New Orleans, there was no warning, no time to prepare, no time to adjust plans.

Social scientists have argued for years that there are many misconceptions about human and organizational behaviour in disaster. They say, for example, that panic is rare and that victims are not dazed and confused but are the real first responders. They say that anti-social behaviour such as looting is rare to non-existent and that in disasters crime rates usually fall. They say that victims often resent those who come to assist especially if that assistance is offered in a bureaucratic way. And they say that in disaster individuals do quite well, but organizations do not. It is interesting to see whether social scientists are right when Mississauga and New Orleans are examined.

Certainly in both locations there was no panic, no sign whatsoever of hysteria. In fact the real problem in both places—and especially in New Orleans—was the lack of panic. Instead of being frightened to the point they felt compelled to flee, many in New Orleans decided to stay and take their chances. This is the opposite of panic. Of course, there was a major difference between the two cities. In Mississauga, everyone was urged to go. No provisions were made for those who wished to remain. In New Orleans, despite the evacuation order, the city offered to provide a public shelter for those who decided to stay—or did not have any way of leaving. This clearly gave a mixed message: you have to go but if you stay we have a place for you to do so. That seems, in retrospect, to have been a terrible mistake, and it was magnified by the fact that those who stayed were told to bring their own supplies of food, water and other necessities.

What about the second misconception—that victims are dazed and confused and in shock. There is no evidence to suggest that happened in either city. Certainly in New Orleans there was anger at what had happened and concern, especially about those who were trapped in their homes or other buildings. But those persons—or so it appeared—did the best they could under very difficult circumstances. Did the survivors assist others? At this point it is difficult to tell. None of the media interviews appear to have asked questions about this. They have treated those who stayed as incapable of helping themselves. Perhaps that was the case. Probably we will never know.

The biggest difference between the two cities—or so it appears—was the looting. In Mississauga, crime rates dropped almost to nil. The only serious incident was a series of break-ins by a group of persons who had done the same previously. They were arrested and that was that. In New Orleans, in contrast—or so it would appear—there was a great deal of criminal activity. At least that is what the news media and officials would have us believe. It is important that this be looked at in context.

First, it is important to realize that behaviour that is normally not appropriate may well be appropriate in a disaster. For example, if someone started using an axe to chop a hole in the roof of a private residence in normal times, there would be immediate calls for a police response and arrests would follow. In the wake of the flood, there were many occasions where those with axes who chopped holes in roofs were welcome as saviours. People trapped under their eaves troughs had no other way to get out. The same behaviour has different meaning in a different context.

That means it is important to examine the context of various acts which seem to have occurred in New Orleans. Persons for example were reported to have broken into stores to “steal” water, food, even diapers. This behaviour is just as appropriate as if someone using an axe to chop through a roof. The stores were closed. No arrangements had been made for food, water and clothing to be provided. People took the only recourse they had for survival. The social norms had changed.

Second, it is essential to look at what usually happens in order to make accurate comparisons. Mississauga is not a high crime city. Murders are rare. So are robberies with violence. New Orleans is very different. Its murder rate is 10 times the national average. Its robberies run at three times the national average. And it’s reasonable to assume that crimes involving the use of weapons are far more common than in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, where there are far, far tighter rules about who can legally own a gun. (In Canada, in most cases, when a criminal uses a weapon, that weapon has come into the country illegally from the United States.) In looking at New Orleans, it is important to ask not whether there was any criminal violence after the disaster but whether the rate of crime increased or fell.

The fourth misconception is that people welcome outside assistance. This was certainly true in the hurricane area when those assisting came to do search and rescue, came to provide fresh water or came to provide belated transportation out of the stricken areas. It is not surprising there was not so welcome a response to those who came to provide what is being called the restoration of law and order. However so far we know little of the reaction to the aid efforts and nothing about whether there are going to be bureaucratic rules about assistance and about how the relief money is allocated. Certainly there is lots of evidence from past incidents that those who know how to work the legal system—in short those who have money—are more likely to get aid.

The final misconception is that emergency agencies and government will perform better than individuals. In Mississauga to some extent it was a draw. The public performed well but so did those in charge. In New Orleans it is hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that the authorities performed rather badly indeed.

Hurricane Katrina was in two ways an expected event. It has been known for decades that sooner or later a major storm would made landfall at New Orleans. And it was known what that would mean to a city protected by dykes or levees. Moreover, the United States weather service did its usual superb job of tracking this storm. It was known well before impact that there was every chance a Category Five hurricane would strike. The weather service even managed to downgrade Katrina to a Category Four just before impact. City officials clearly understood and acted on that information and that is why they declared an evacuation was required.

Making an evacuation announcement was important. Getting it the widest possible attention was also important. And it did lead to many leaving—including local media who relocated outside the city. But that decision was undermined in two ways. First no provision appears to have been made for those without private transport and without resources. The flood of buses that came in to relocate those who took shelter in public arenas should have come in before Katrina not after it. Second, the announcement that public shelters were available made the message to leave seem less convincing. People search for some way to discount a warning. New Orleans provided that.

Is it fair to compare the two cities, Mississauga and New Orleans? Perhaps in some ways it is not. The circumstances were certainly very different. Most residents of Mississauga were away for roughly a week and most knew their homes and possessions would be intact when they returned. New Orleans’ residents face a very different return if and when that comes. Yet Mississauga is 40 percent the size of New Orleans, which is not that large a city. And the problem being discussed is not the recovering, restoration and return but the handling of the evacuation of a major city. On that basis, the comparison is legitimate and disturbing.

It is always easier to look back and see what might have been done than to look ahead and see what should be done. But surely it is reasonable to suggest that New Orleans had the time and the resources—if it had utilized all emergency personnel—to send persons door to door to tell people to go. And surely, given the precise nature of the warning, it would have been possible to round up the buses needed to move people out. And surely arrangements could have been made to release the supplies locked in various stores and warehouses and make them available to those who were told they could stay behind.

The authorities in New Orleans had two options. They could have increased the pressure to evacuate by making arrangements for a massive move out via public transportation and by sending persons door to door to convey the warning and the fact that free transportation was available in the clearest possible way. Or they could have developed a plan for how to deal with the needs of those who stayed once they decided and made clear this was a legitimate option. From what has been reported they seem to have chosen neither of those options.

Despite Gustave LeBon’s perception that in times of crisis people revert to what he called the “lower orders,”research has shown that people generally behave quite well in the wake of a disaster. They look around them to see what has to be done and, if possible, do it. The problem in New Orleans of course was that those who survived often did not have the capacity to do what needed to be done. Many were trapped in their homes unable to help themselves let alone help others. Most—including those who sheltered in public facilities—were soon short of water, food, clothing and sanitary facilities. It was urgent that there be a) a massive relief effort and b) a massive search and rescue effort to find those who were trapped and to help them. Given the flooding it would seem logical to suggest this had to be done by water craft, perhaps the sort of flat bottom boat that is used in the Florida Everglades.

Of course, some of those who survived did do what they could to help themselves. Given their desperate need for liquid they found sources for fresh water and, where necessary, did what was needed to get that water. If that involved breaking into a store, that is what they did. They did the same thing when they needed food or diapers or fresh clothing. If the authorities wanted to prevent this they had the two options described above. They would have got the people out of they could have brought supplies in.

Sadly, the authorities chose to view the situation in New Orleans after Katrina not as one involving desperate people urgently in need of assistance but as a situation requiring law and order. So the police—though reluctant at first—began to crack down on what they were being told was “looting”. And the military arrived with a show of force.

Forcing people to leave their homes is not easy. No community has the resources to enforce an evacuation order if there is major resistance. Further, the ability to act is a function of the resources available. From the evidence available, it appears that moving almost everyone out of New Orleans would have been far more difficult than moving people out of Mississauga. And even in Mississauga some refused to go. But it is hard to avoid thinking that if the resources that became available after the hurricane— helicopters, buses, shelters, personnel—had been called in before Katrina struck, there would be many fewer problems now.

Joseph Scanlon is professor emeritus and director of the Emergency Communications Research Unit at Carleton University. In 1980 Professor Scanlon was commissioned by the Canadian Police College to write a book on the role of the police in the Mississauga evacuation.