It interests me that the “no looting in Japan” meme has been so embraced by the Right. Over the past few days I’ve also seen a number of comments that claimed there was no looting in Iowa after the 2008 floods (not true); there was no looting in New York City after 9/11 (actually there was, but not by poor people), but New Orleans was a looting riot (exaggerated in news stories) after Hurricane Katrina. And this is explained by racial factors, naturally.
I’ve said before that comparisons between 9/11 and Katrina are absurd, because the natures of the tragedies were entirely different. In Katrina, people were trapped for days without rescue or provisions. On 9/11, the survivors could walk a few blocks and find everything from hot dog vendors to grocery stores to five-star gourmet restaurants open for business.
And also, on the days that followed 9/11, lower Manhattan was closed off and patrolled by NYPD and the National Guard.
The more interesting question is why there wasn’t more looting in New York City during the 2003 blackout, when a similar blackout in 1977 touched off a festival of crime. Interesting article about that at History News Network.
In brief, relative order after a disaster has a lot to do with the degree to which people trust the social contract to look out for them. New Orleans residents, particularly in the areas most impacted by floods, had little reason to trust the system. And the system pretty much proved they were right.