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Why We Should Be Skeptical of Looting Reports in New Zealand

Stories of lawlessness after the New Zealand cyclone are likely exaggerated.

Key points

  • Stories of looting by bikers in the aftermath of Gabrielle may appeal to a frustrated public that is looking for someone to blame.
  • Research on the response to disasters in Western countries consistently shows that these events bring out the best in people.
  • While rumors of looting at Western disaster sites are common, verified claims of lawlessness are rare.

There has been public outrage in response to reports of widespread looting and gang activity in flood-ravaged regions of New Zealand in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle’s path of destruction. The notion that some people would take advantage of their fellow Kiwis in their time of need has generated anger. Some residents in the affected areas have taken the law into their own hands by setting up roadblocks and arming themselves. Politicians are calling for harsher penalties for those convicted of looting in areas that are under a state of emergency. Yet, if history is any guide, we should be skeptical of reports of significant looting by biker gangs.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and opposition politicians have clashed over the extent of the looting and lawlessness in places like Hawkes Bay, where the region has been swept by a fear of looters and gangs roaming wild. Police Minister Stuart Nash recently warned gang leaders to get their members to “pull your bloody head in, get your animals off the streets ... They have ... family affected as well. Get out and start helping them.”

It is neither appropriate nor helpful to demonize bikers with dehumanizing language and refer to them as “animals.” The immediate aftermath of disasters is akin to the "fog of war" where fear, uncertainty, frustration, grief, melancholy, sleep depravity, and inhibited communication channels often result in rumors becoming fact. Studies consistently show that disasters bring out the best in people and draw them together—and that includes gang members.

Since the early 1960s, the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware has deployed field researchers to the scene of over 700 earthquakes, floods, and other events around the world. Their findings have been remarkably consistent: The overwhelming majority pitch in and help their fellow victims. For disasters occurring in Western countries, looting is extremely rare, yet curiously, it is common for rumors and media stories to exaggerate such claims, especially in the early aftermath.

Whether it is the sinking of the Titanic, the collapse of the Twin Towers, or the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria, these events bring out the best that humanity has to offer. Most people remain calm and carry on. Many people may recall accounts of widespread looting in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Long-term studies of this event have found that erroneous reports of widespread looting led to the formation of militia groups who created barricades that inhibited assistance reaching people in need. Furthermore, TV images of people scavenging shops during Katrina were misleading, as most of the items taken were bare essentials: food, water, and clothing. Most of those affected by Katrina were poor and black, which only fed into the criminal stereotype. In New Zealand, Māori are disproportionately represented in gangs and comprise over 50 percent of the prison system, yet they are only about 17 percent of the population. During disasters, the stereotype of the criminal Māori renders them vulnerable to arrest for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Perhaps there are biker gangs roaming devastated communities and callously stealing from their fellow Kiwis, but if that's true, these claims run counter to a vast sociological literature to the contrary. Stories of looting in the aftermath of Gabrielle may serve to bring people together in response to a common threat as a frustrated public looks for someone to blame. Bikers and others who sit on the margins of society make convenient scapegoats. Caveat emptor: “Let the buyer beware.”


Howie, Cherie (2023). “Live: Looters, Crime: Nash Grilled by Hosking over Gang Comments.” News Talk ZB, February 20.

Cox, Zachary, Kendra, James, Wachtendorf, Tricia, Marlowe, Valerie (2019). “The Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware: The World's First Center for the Social Scientific Study of Disaster.” Delaware Journal of Public Health 28;5(4):44-48.

Quarantelli, Enrico (2008). “Conventional Beliefs and Counterintuitive Realities.” Social Research 75(3):873-904. See p. 885.

Rodriguez, H., Trainor, J., & Quarantelli, E. (2006). Rising to the challenges of a catastrophe. The emergent and prosocial behavior following Hurricane Katrina. The Annals of the American Academy, 604(1), 82–101.

Solnit, Rebecca (2010). A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. New York: Penguin.

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