Disaster Mythology and the Law
Lisa Grow Sun
Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School
March 3, 2010
Cornell Law Review, Forthcoming
Sociologists have identified a number of “myths” – widely shared misconceptions – about the ways that people behave in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. While these disaster myths have been the subject of intensive investigation by sociology scholars, they have been wholly neglected in legal scholarship. Yet these myths have important implications for disaster law and policy. If sociologists are correct that many widely shared assumptions about post-disaster human behavior are myths with little basis in fact, and that these myths exert a powerful hold on the American mind, we might expect that existing laws reflect and perhaps even perpetuate these myths. Moreover, if both existing laws and the implementation of those laws are grounded in the myths, rather than the reality, of human behavior in disaster situations, then we might also expect that current disaster laws and policies are suboptimal, and likely mismatched to the task of minimizing human suffering in disaster’s aftermath.
This Article considers the legal implications of perhaps the most important disaster myth: the myth that natural disasters produce widespread looting and violence. The Article examines a number of unfortunate legal consequences of the myth, including deployment of military troops in a law enforcement, rather than humanitarian, capacity; distortion of response priorities outlined in disaster plans; and imposition of restrictions on freedom of movement and other basic rights. Ultimately, the Article concludes that the deleterious effects of the myth on our disaster laws can best be countered by constraining official discretion to overemphasize security risks in immediate response decisions, rejecting calls to pass broad looting laws that can reflect and perpetuate the myth, and reforming the structure of federal disaster agencies by removing the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the Department of Homeland Security and reestablishing it as a cabinet-level agency.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 60
Date posted: March 8, 2010 ; Last revised: June 10, 2015