The parallels between Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Katrina are stark. Look no further than the severe and destructive flooding that both storms have left along the Gulf Coast and the sheer number of evacuations due in part to a respective lack of preparation.
Perhaps it’s because of those similarities that an “ABC World News Tonight” anchor’s use of the word “looting” on Twitter to describe a scene amid Houston’s floodwaters reminded many of a debate that raged 12 years ago.
As Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast in 2005, two images surfaced that would fuel conversation around race and perception in the coming days, weeks and years.
The controversy centered on two photos and their respective captions. One from Associated Press photographer Dave Martin showed a young black man wading through water while holding a bag and a case of soda. The accompanying description stated that he was “looting.” A second photo from Chris Graythen for Getty Images showed a similar scene, but this time it was a white couple clutching bags of food. Their actions were labeled as “finding.”
The photos quickly sparked criticism for what many believed to be race-fueled descriptions based on implicit bias. The conversation played out across the Internet, even taking the prime-time stage when Kanye West spoke on the matter during a telethon to benefit victims of Katrina. The outrage was so memorable that five years later, the Newseum in Washington featured the photos and backlash in its Katrina exhibit.
At the time, the Associated Press stood by its description, pointing to its guidelines for justification of using the word “looting” rather than “carrying.” An AP spokesman told Salon that the photographer “saw the person go into the shop and take the goods, and that’s why he wrote ‘looting’ in the caption.”
Getty also stuck by its description to use “finding.” In a blog post days later, Graythen further explained his reasoning.
“These people were not ducking into a store and busting down windows to get electronics. They picked up bread and cokes that were floating in the water. They would have floated away anyhow.”
Graythen wrote that his description had nothing to do with race, and added that when he later saw both white and black individuals actually looting a store, he did include that in his caption.
This time around in the wake of Harvey, there was no photo or mention of race. Anchor Tom Llamas simply described a situation in a tweet, later deleting the original and tweeting again, adding that the people he saw “looting” had covered their faces.
Still, the added context and the absence of racially charged images did not preclude criticism. As Katrina demonstrated, the term has a loaded meaning for many people, regardless of the reality behind the situation.