The Astrodome Sink

I haven’t commented on Hurricane Katrina before now because I don’t wish to reiterate the obvious: the disaster planning and response have been disgraceful beyond measure. The consequences of a weak community and social web exceeded my imagination. The broken society Cindy and I sensed in New Orleans eight months ago imploded in tragedy. But I want to focus on something else: the dire consequences of crowding the refugees1.

An article on BoingBoing raised the issue: Doctors Without Borders recommends that the total size of a camp should be 30 square meters per person, with 3.5 square meters of personal shelter space. From the photos I have seen of the Astrodome, I would guess that the hurricane victims have about half that. In The Hidden Dimension, Edward T. Hall examines studies of people and animals in “sinks” – i.e., conditions of overcrowding. In particular, he references a French study which found that,

when the space available was below eight to ten square meters per person social and physical pathologies doubled! Illness, crime, and crowding were definitely linked2.

Hall cautions that reaction to crowding is culture dependent, so these results may not be representative of other societies. Yet animals suffer from similar pathologies (deer drop dead of stress; rats become violent, sexually aggressive, or abuse their young). Furthermore, Americans are accustomed to more space than the French, so one might expect they would be even more susceptible to crowding. Already there are reports of assaults and rapes in the Astrodome3, which has been booked through December. If this isn’t fixed, the hurricane’s victims will go mad long before.

1 I have read that the word “refugees” somehow demeans them. Personally, I think the alternative – evacuees – downplays the scale of the disaster.

2 Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, New York, Anchor Books, 1990 (1966c).

3 Update 2005-12-25: I have since read that this was not the case, and original reports of this kind of activity in the Superdome were greatly exaggerated.