Triggered Collapse, Part 3: Lessons in Lawlessness

A pandemic, loss of the electric system, or other triggering disaster need not be that effective in directly killing people to generate a collapse that results in millions of deaths and a weakened nation. The “cascading effects” of an economic shut down – loss of law and order, looting and marauding, disruption of health, sanitation, water, and transportation systems triggered by the initial disaster – may deliver much worse, longer lasting damage. When electric grids, nuclear reactors, and local water stop functioning, or the police force experiences many casualties, increases in violent crime could be far worse than the virus or other threat that caused it.

The risk of collapse is increasing because of six trends: (1) new technologies like DNA manipulation and bioengineering, new means to manufacture nuclear materials, nanotechnology, and others; (2) rising overpopulation and urbanization, which makes it easier for a virus to spread and harder to sustain the populace; (3) increased economic interdependence, just-in-time inventories; (4) dependence on long-distance food shipments, electricity, inadequate local water; (5) less personal resilience; and (6) more people and gangs with the means to kill and maraud.

Changing Times, Increasing Risks

Combining the spread of a deadly new virus with the vulnerability of just-in-time delivery supplies, as well as a complex and interdependent economy, increases the likelihood of a collapse. For example, a pandemic has costs to economic activity, public services, production of essential goods, and transportation. A subsequent failure of the electrical system or another big disaster could lead to widespread, long-lasting loss of law and order as the nation faces disruptions in factory operation, municipal water system functions, and economic activity. Panic buying and hoarding would add to food shortages.

Major changes in modern day society negatively impact vulnerability to disruptions and resilience to recover. A comparison between general characteristics of the 1800s and the same general traits today highlights the vulnerability of modern society (see Figure 1). As such, U.S. disaster planning should focus more on avoiding or recovering from a collapse than on the initial or “triggering” disaster.

  1800s 2010s
% population farming >80% <2%
Food travel distance Few miles 1,000s
Food on hand Months Days
Water Supply Well Municipal
Electronic dependence None Heavy
Production sourcing Local International
Inventory levels Large Small (just in time)
Overall vulnerability Low High

In addition, gangs would accelerate the breakdown in law and order and magnify marauder threats. The number of gang members in the world is estimated at several million. The United States has tens of thousands of gangs and perhaps a million gang members. The MS-13 Latino gang alone, known for brutal murders, has tens of thousands of members dispersed among most U.S. states. In addition to gang members, others would also use the disaster and distraction to police as an opportunity to loot.

A major disaster could lead to economic and societal shutdown that escalates out of control. A Defense Science Board study warned that even a relatively benign cyberattack could trigger collapse:

[F]ood and medicine distribution systems would be ineffective, transportation would fail or become so chaotic as to be useless. Law enforcement, medical staff, and emergency personnel capabilities could be expected to be barely functional in the short term and dysfunctional over sustained periods.

Lessons From Past Pandemics, Disasters, Riots & Exercises

There are too many unknowns and situation-specific variables to reliably estimate public reactions to a disaster that disrupts food supplies and overwhelms the medical system and law enforcement. However, past disasters and pandemics provide insights that increase confidence that there will be elements of panic and lawlessness, looting, marauding, and murders, that need to be anticipated and prepared for.

U.S. disaster planning should focus more on avoiding or recovering from a collapse than on the initial or “triggering” disaster.

Spanish Flu pandemic, 1918. The last serious pandemic is often cited as an example of what to prepare for. Over 500,000 Americans were killed. An internal American Red Cross report concluded that, “A fear and panic of the influenza, akin to the terror of the Middle Ages regarding the Black Plague, [has] been prevalent in many parts of the country.” Reactions were generally worse in cities. Automobiles were largely absent on the streets in Manhattan and Philadelphia. Little data on worker absenteeism is available but, even in defense industries, crucial to the war effort – absenteeism ranged from 45 to 60%.

Outbreak of smallpox in Yugoslavia, 1972. Europe’s last major smallpox outbreak was centered in Kosovo and Belgrade, then part of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The outbreak was stopped by quarantines, aggressive police and military measures, and 18 million emergency vaccinations to protect a population of 21 million that was already highly vaccinated. Panic and lawlessness were largely preempted or overcome by swift institution of martial law, with blockades of villages and neighborhoods, roadblocks, prohibition of public meetings, border closures, and prohibition of nonessential travel. Hotels were requisitioned for quarantine use; 10,000 people who may have been in contact with the virus were held under army and police guards. Blocks were cordoned off with barbed wire, “essentially creating health prison camps.” Almost the entire Yugoslavian population was vaccinated or revaccinated, with help from other countries and an existing stockpile of vaccines. The net result: just 175 Yugoslavians contracted the disease; only 35 died.

New York City, 1977. New York City suffered a lightning strike that caused power failure for one night. As a result of the blackout, over 3,000 arrests were made for looting, 400 policemen were injured, and 500 fires were started. More than 25,000 emergency calls were placed, with four times the usual number of hospital emergency admissions.

Plague outbreak in Surat, India, 1994. This plague caused a nationwide panic and “a near international isolation of India,” $3-4 billion in economic losses, despite a very localized occurrence of the disease and just 53 fatalities. When news of plague was released, 600,000 people (one fourth of the population) fled Surat by whatever means available. Even doctors fled the city in desperation. Other cities, thousands of kilometers away, experienced overwhelmed hospitals (imagined illness) and panic buying. Some nations imposed commercial quarantines on India. The plague was spread by fleeing people, but most of the deaths occurred in Surat.

Hurricane Katrina, 2005. “The Federal Response To Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned,” written by DHS in 2006, summarizes, the impacts of the hurricane and flooding on law and order:

Almost immediately following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, law and order began to deteriorate in New Orleans…. People began looting in some areas as soon as the storm relented. Violent crimes were committed against law enforcement officers and other emergency response personnel…. The city’s overwhelmed police force – 70% of which were themselves victims of the disaster – did not have the capacity to arrest every person witnessed committing a crime, and many more crimes were undoubtedly neither observed by police nor reported. The resulting lawlessness in New Orleans significantly impeded – and in some cases temporarily halted – relief efforts and delayed restoration of essential private sector services such as power, water, and telecommunications.

The reports and evidence of lawlessness from Katrina documented in a 2006 Congressional report are worth considering. Conditions cited in the report that contributed to lawlessness and violence, included: collapse of local law enforcement; ineffective public communication; lack of food, water, electricity, and medical supplies; uncertainty about evacuations; and loss of hope. The need for military support to law enforcement was evident. Katrina showed that lawlessness, looting, killing, and policemen abandoning their duty can result from disasters with relatively minor threat of death.

Vancouver, Canada, June 2011. One hundred were injured, stores looted, cars burned, police attacked following a riot after loss in Stanley Cup championship soccer game. Police noted signs of organized violence with some bringing masks and gasoline, “they came prepared to break into display cases and steal.”

The United Kingdom, 2011. The UK experienced lawlessness on a countrywide scale. UK riots showed that law and order can break down and violence spread without an underlying disaster or cause. The UK Prime Minister called it “pure criminality”; others said it was inevitable violence from youth fed up with unemployment or mad at police. Attacks on police and looting started in London but spread quickly to cities across the UK. Rioters coordinated their activities. Looting and violence grew as more people took advantage of the opportunity and police lost control of many areas. Violence repeated in London for four nights until 16,000 additional police officers were moved in to restore order. In Birmingham, three men were killed trying to protect their businesses. Hundreds of youths in Manchester looted shops and set fires to cars and buildings. Police cars and five police stations were attacked with firebombs in Nottingham. Almost all (22 out of 23) boroughs in London were affected, with 2,500 shops and businesses looted across England. While 4,000 people were arrested, up to 14,000 were believed to have been involved in looting, arson, or attacks on police. A London School of Economics study of the riots found that most were involved simply as an opportunity to easily steal “free stuff.” Gangs were only a small percentage of law breakers.

Baltimore Riots, 2015. It took the State Patrol, National Guard, and police reinforcements from several states, as well as armored vehicles to restore law and order in Baltimore after racial protests opened opportunities for arson and looting. Despite the presence of police and TV cameras, a mob in broad daylight looted and then burned a CVS drugstore. Police fired pepper-spray balls to disperse crowds, with 15 buildings and 144 cars set on fire and 19 police officers injured. President Barack Obama denounced the rioters as criminals and “thugs,” saying there was no excuse for the violence. The violence was also promoted by social media with a call for students to “purge,” referencing a 2013 horror movie depicting a night when crime is legal and emergency response services are not available.

Top Officials Exercise, May 2000. A “Top Officials” tabletop exercise with senior leaders and disaster response experts simulated a plague attack in Denver, Colorado. By the second day of the exercise, Denver area hospitals had run out of antibiotics and ventilators, and plague was being reported in other states and countries. By Day 3, medical care in Denver began shutting down due to insufficient staff, beds, ventilators, and drugs. Person-to-person spread of plague was occurring, and the Centers for Disease Control advised Colorado to close its state borders to limit further spread of plague. By the end of the exercise on Day 4, there were an estimated 3,700 cases of plague and 950-2,000 deaths. The public did not participate due to concerns of disinformation and panic. Issues were raised over how to feed and control a populace that was likely to have grave concerns. In this four-day exercise, “competition between cities for the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile supplies had already broken out. It had all the characteristics of an epidemic out of control.”

Dark Winter Exercise, June 2001. During an exercise called Dark Winter, a group of government officials and journalists play-acted their way through a “germ game,” a fictional scenario in which the (then obscure) terrorist group called al-Qaida set off an outbreak of smallpox in U.S. shopping malls. In the simulation, National Guard units were activated and used to impose curfews and quarantines, and keep public peace. Senator Sam Nunn, who played the president in the exercise, drew these lessons learned from the smallpox exercise in his Congressional testimony:

I am convinced the threat of a biological weapons attack on the United States is very real…. The most insidious effect of a biological weapons attack is that it can turn Americans against Americans. Once smallpox is released, it is not the terrorist anymore who are the threat…. Panic is as great a danger as disease. Some will respond like saints.… Others will respond with panic, perhaps even using guns and violence to get vaccines.

This article is Part 3 of a six-part series on closing disaster recovery gaps and preparing for triggering events that could cascade into long-term societal disruptions:

Triggered Collapse, Part 1: A Nation Unprepared

Triggered Collapse, Part 2: Viral Pandemics

Triggered Collapse, Part 3: Lessons in Lawlessness

Triggered Collapse, Part 4: Cascading Consequences Beyond the Event

Triggered Collapse, Part 5: Gaps in National Disaster Planning Scenarios

Triggered Collapse, Part 6: A Nationwide Call to Action

Drew Miller

Drew Miller, Ph.D., a former intelligence officer, Pentagon Senior Executive Service official, and retired Air Force Reserve Colonel, business executive, management consultant. He was an honor graduate of the Air Force Academy, receiving an academic scholarship to Harvard University, where he earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in public policy. He has published articles on the bioengineered pandemic threat and presented at national conferences on disaster preparedness. He served as a part-time elected official, county commissioner, and University of Nebraska Regent for 16 years, and continues to serve in the Civil Air Patrol.



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