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Israeli study: Crime drops in areas hit by natural disasters

Hebrew University concludes that unaffected neighboring regions see an uptick in criminal activity, but also increased philanthropy

In this November 18, 2020, photo taken by a drone, residences destroyed by the Mountain View Fire line a street in the Walker community in Mono County, California.(AP/Noah Berger)
In this November 18, 2020, photo taken by a drone, residences destroyed by the Mountain View Fire line a street in the Walker community in Mono County, California.(AP/Noah Berger)

While media reports and movies may have popularized the notion of widespread looting and chaos in the wake of major disasters, Israeli researchers have concluded that communities impacted by natural catastrophes actually experience a decrease in crime.

According to the study conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, natural disasters generally don’t contribute to increased criminal activity, and may even lead to reductions in crime levels, though surrounding areas, unaffected by the natural disasters, often see an uptick in crime.

The team analyzed data from over 10,000 disasters in the United States between 2004 and 2015, which claimed the lives of over 8,300 people and caused over $100 billion in damage.

Researchers compared the impacts of the disasters on the directly affected communities with those surrounding them and underlined the disparity in the crime rates.

Volunteers from the Royal Caribbean’s Go Team load water and relief supplies on to trucks on the quayside of Freeport Harbour in Grand Bahama, Bahamas, September 8, 2019, in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. (AP/Tim Aylen)

Areas affected by the disasters “understandably saw a decrease in charitable giving,” the study said, but unaffected neighboring regions and communities further from the disaster saw increased philanthropy.

The study suggests that when people fear for their resources, like in the aftermath of natural disasters, they are likely to be protective and reduce spending on anything that is not essential. People in areas near those impacted by the disaster, meanwhile, are driven by a sense of empathy and solidarity to increase their charitable giving.

Professor Claude Berrebi during a talk on economics and terrorism, November 4, 2011. (Screenshot: YouTube/BINA LA)

Prof. Claude Berrebi, joint author of the study along with Ariel Karlinsky and Dr. Hanan Yonah, said, “These findings have important implications for policymakers and others who are in charge of disaster response and crisis management,” adding that “the study demonstrates how people respond when their resources are threatened, or even are believed to be threatened and this leads people to withdraw from social involvement while at the same can inspire others to come out in solidarity and financial support.”

“This is particularly important as we recognize that often official channels and governments can be slower in their responses and therefore policies that encourage volunteerism and increased civilian support for those directly affected can be of vital assistance in the immediate wake of such events,” Berrebi said.

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