Sept. 1, 2005 – People who remained in hurricane-stricken areas and have so-far survived torrential winds and unprecedented flooding have begun to face new hazards, with more to come: police and National Guard troops on orders to prevent looting, businesses intent on price gouging, insurance company scams and thuggish tactics on the part of fellow survivors.
While the effects of Hurricane Katrina linger and in some areas worsen, a picture is only beginning to emerge of the vast human and environmental devastation the disaster has wrought. Hundreds of thousands have been rendered homeless, and an untold portion of those lack even basic shelter or access to food and potable water as they wander the disaster zone or wait anxiously on rooftops or along stretches of raised freeways.
Reports that some of Katrinaâ€™s survivors in cities like New Orleans, Louisiana and Biloxi, Mississippi were helping themselves to supplies and merchandise from stores began to emerge in the national media almost before the winds died down. People in New Orleans who presumably have lost or will soon lose everything else are breaking into stores and walking off with essential items such as food, water, ice and diapers, as well as merchandise with less immediate value like electronics and jewelry. Some have even looted firearms, according to numerous on-scene reports.
Police and national guard personnel on the scene have in some cases chased off would-be looters, but through most of Wednesday, at least as often they appeared to be turning a blind eye, facilitating the acquisition of supplies and even participating in theft.
On Tuesday, survivors absconded with everything from food to computers at a Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans, according to a detailed report by local daily Times-Picayune. The paperâ€™s reporters said the scene began as a giveaway of essential items orchestrated by police but quickly erupted into a free-for-all looting extravaganza with police losing control and civilians accusing police of stealing "all the best stuff."
Police officers interviewed by the Times-Picayune said the looting was beyond their control throughout the city. "We don't have enough cops to stop it," the officer said. "A mass riot would break out if you tried."
Many law enforcement agents readily acknowledged to reporters that they recognized many people in the affected areas have no other access to food, clothing or first-aid supplies. With few emergency supplies making it to stranded survivors, supplies held in vacated storefronts constitute a vital lifeline.
But elsewhere Tuesday the necessity of looting met with less sympathy from authorities. "I have instructed the highway patrol and the national guard to treat looters ruthlessly," Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour told reporters. "Looting will not be tolerated, period."
By Wednesday evening, the relative goodwill of authorities had run out in New Orleans as well. Mayor Ray Nagin announced that nearly the entire active city police force was under orders to cease any search-and-rescue efforts and focus on suppressing looters. Nagin told the Associated Press he had assigned 1,500 officers to provide security to downtown area businesses providing services to survivors, such as hotels and hospitals.
"It's really difficult because my opinion of the looting is it started with people running out of food, and you can't really argue with that too much," Nagin said. "Then it escalated to this kind of mass chaos where people are taking electronic stuff and all that."
On Thursday, Louisiana State Police spokesperson Sergeant Frank Coates told Bloomberg news that Baton Rouge was sending 300 reinforcements, including 50 swat officers, to back up the New Orleans local force. Coates said police are under orders to target looters stealing items that are not "in the survival bracket."
New Orleans Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson opposed the use of police to quell looters. "We're using exhausted, scarce police to control looting when they should be used for search and rescue while we still have people on rooftops," she told reporters.
Meanwhile, untold thousands of mostly poor people remain helplessly stranded in the flooded city, many of them certain they have been abandoned.
Outside the worst-hit areas, refugees have found themselves in harsh competition for necessities like gasoline and temporary shelter as opportunistic merchants are reportedly raising prices, taking advantage of increased demand for staples in the wake of the natural disaster.
Even in New Orleans, where very little buying and selling is taking place, price exploitation is at play. Hawaiian emergency medical workers stranded in New Orleans told their hometown paper, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, that they had to pay $45 for two plates of fried squash and rice and one can of warm cola to split among four women.
Attorneys general throughout the South but also in states like Illinois and New Jersey have been issuing warnings all week about the potential for gasoline price gouging during the recovery from the effects of Katrina. Many states have reported complaints from residents who said they had encountered extraordinary prices on simple necessities like batteries to major necessities such as hotel rooms.
In most states, merchants are not technically engaged in price gouging unless an emergency has been declared. Thus, when gasoline in Georgia reportedly reached $6 per gallon Wednesday, Governor Sonny Perdue signed an executive order putting the gouging laws into effect, but prior to that moment it was perfectly legal for retailers to put price tags beyond the reach of the poor.
New Orleanians whose ruined property is insured will face two major hurdles to collecting on a claim. First, most are insured for flood damage, but not hurricane damage, so in many cases homeowners will have to fight to prove their losses were caused by rising waters, not winds.
Additionally, some predatory insurers may take advantage of those who have lost literally everything, or close to everything, and try to take advantage of desperate claimants, by offering undervalued payout amounts accompanied by high co-payment requirements. This practice was outlawed in Florida after insurers engaged in it following recent natural catastrophes there.
Another common form of gouging that usually surfaces more quietly in the recovery period is that performed by home repair contractors charging excessive prices, often for inferior or even fraudulent work. With fewer legitimate contractors than are typically needed to rebuild in the wake of disaster, homeowners tend to pay more and be less scrutinizing.
â€˜Armed, Roaming Gangsâ€™
Authorities and eyewitnesses reported incidents involving violence and threats by armed survivors. Unconfirmed reports of gunmen attacking a rescue helicopter, breaking down doors at hospitals and terrorizing a nursing home spread quickly with the help of the local and national news media. Police arrested four alleged looters Tuesday after a shooting incident during which they claimed one of those arrested shot an officer in the head.
Terry Ebbert, New Orleansâ€™s homeland security head, told the AP, "There are gangs of armed menâ€¦ moving around the city." Countless reports of random and mob violence emerged throughout the day, often by way of blog postings, calls to television and radio news shows, and interviews with reporters on scene.
But some of the more fantastic stories have yet to be verified, and at least one proved to be a rumor. The Times-Picayune debunked a prevalent rumor that a mob of looters had stormed Childrens Hospital. In fact, a hospital official told the paper that it was functioning well and expecting relief, and that debunking the rumor was among the bigger problems it faced Wednesday.
Extensive footage and photographs of the catastropheâ€™s aftermath reviewed by NewStandard staff depicted few people with weapons and only police threatening or engaging in violence. Instead, it appears that most survivors â€“ at least during daylight hours â€“ are engaged in lawful activities or are helping themselves to abandoned goods nonviolently.