By: Patrick J. Kiger October 03, 2013

Commerce & Looting

Many experts fear that commerce would grind to a halt in the event of a prolonged blackout. Survival expert James Wesley Rawles notes that our society has become so dependent upon credit cards and electronic transactions that we’d find it difficult to switch back to using cash. “Even if we wanted to, there wouldn't be enough cash available,” he says. In addition, today’s warehouse-sized stores aren't designed to be usable without electricity. “It’s tilt-up concrete slab architecture, windowless big-box stores,” he says. “Without electricity, what you've got is a great big dark cave. People would have to walk around with flashlights. And they can’t conduct business without grid power. The cash registers won’t work.”

Another problem is that even if paying customers dare to show up at stores with cash—a dicey proposition at a time when police protection may be hindered by the blackout—the stores may not have anything left on their shelves. There are fears that looting will become a major problem, as it did during a 1977 blackout in New York City. According to a 1977 Newsweek article, police arrested 3,776 thieves before they finally gave up, and simply began trying to contain the looting rather than stop it. “A mile and a half of Brooklyn’s Broadway was put to the torch,” the article reported. “Protective metal grills were torn off storefronts with crowbars, battered down with cars and dragged down by brute force. Teenagers first, then grade-schoolers and grownups rifled shops and markets for clothes, appliances, furniture, television sets, groceries…” Some thieves even set up shop in an abandoned store in Harlem and resold their loot, offering Pro-Keds sneakers for $5 a pair and color TVs for $135. In total, some 2,000 stores were broken into, and estimates of property losses ranged as high as $1 billion.

Today, if a blackout was "severe enough that the staples of life that we have come to take for granted become no longer available, I would fear a civil unrest," says Joel Gordes, electrical power research director for the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a private-sector organization that studies the risk of cyber-attacks on the power grid and other critical infrastructure. "As the law of the jungle took over, it would be the survival of those who were the strongest over those who did not have the resources of government or of themselves to protect their very being."

"However, notions that disasters are accompanied by looting, social disorganization, and deviant behavior are examples of such myths," say sociologists Kathleen Tierney, Christine Bevc and Erica Kuligowski. "Research shows that the mass media play a significant role in promulgating erroneous beliefs about disaster behavior." Writing in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, other experts add that "research has shown repeatedly that looting is highly unusual in U.S. disasters. When it does occur, it tends to be transient, to be carried out in secret, and to involve isolated groups rather than large numbers of people."

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