Every disaster site has to contend with the effects of convergence of people, of communications, and of material on an infrastructure that is already damaged by the disaster.
The San Francisco Chronicle (Kelly Zito and Kantele Franko) report a different perspective on voluntourism in the affluent area around Lake Tahoe that was the site of the Angora fire. Here they are just considered gawkers, getting in the way of firefighters and not respecting residents' privacy. In this case, there are volunteers staffing checkpoints to keep people out.
Other names for the phenomenon are convergence behavior and disaster convergence—it occurs on some scale after every disaster, from house fires to 9/11. It's not surprising that a newspaper in San Francisco notices the pattern, because the Bay area is regularly visited by moderately large scale disasters like fires and earthquakes.
The classic 1957 paper about it is now available on the Internet: Covergence Behavior in Disasters: A Problem in Social Control by Charles E. Fritz and J. H. Mathewson (an 11Mb pdf scan of the orginal 100 page monograph). This is a must read for its horrific descriptions of responses to disasters up to the mid-twentieth century and also for its conceptual framework of threefold convergence—people, information, and material—that overwhelm transportation, communication, and distribution systems in the wake of a disaster. The paper also introduces a useful classification of convergers: returnees, the anxious, the curious, helpers, and exploiters. The discussions about looting by security forces (page 53) and about people who misrepresent themselves to obtain relief (page 56) are astounding, considering that it was written a half-century before Katrina.
The experience of 9/11 generated some new insights for researchers James M. Kendra and Traicia Wachtendorf in the paper Rebel Food.. .Renegade Supplies: Convergence after the World Trade Center Attack. This paper acknowledged some of the earlier framework, but introduced a few new categories, mourners and fans (of rescue workers) appearing after 9/11.
There is a significant difference between the 1957 perspective, though, in the appearance of heightened sensitivity among safety officials to the public relations impact of their handling of the merely curious. Of course, the Ground Zero site eventually went well beyond any previous accommodation of the curious with its architect-designed observation platform.
But going even further, the paper A Need to Help: Emergent Volunteer Behavior after September 11, by Seana Lowe and Alice Fothergill suggests that disaster planners should come up with meaningful tasks to give to convergers who are not physically associated with a disaster but who feel the psychological impact of it. We have already reported that charities in New Orleans feel they must accommodate the hordes of corporate volunteers. And although volunteer efforts by Habitat for Humanity and others lag due to the inefficiency of unskilled volunteers, those who participate seem uplifted by the experience.
But next time there's a disaster, maybe we should consider resisting the urge to converge.