Looters posing as police to con Houston flood victims

Fourteen arrested on suspicion of looting and midnight to 5am curfew imposed to deter burglars.

A family is evacuated by boat from Tropical Storm Harvey floodwaters in western Houston, Texas August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Powered by automated translation

A side effect of Hurricane, then Tropical Storm Harvey, is that has brought out best in people. Now it is also bringing out the worst.

Officials in Houston have been forced to issue warnings about burglars and con men, saying that anyone caught looting will face the full force of the law and sentences of up to life in prison as they crack down on reports of opportunists using catastrophic flooding to break into homes and businesses.

Police say they have arrested 14 people on suspicion of looting and on Monday night announced an indefinite curfew from midnight to 5am to prevent thieves breaking into abandoned buildings.

Houston police chief Art Acevedo said individuals impersonating law enforcement officers had been knocking on doors in at least two parts of the city telling residents to evacuate their homes — and then returning to rob them once they have left their property.

"We've had instances of looting; we've had armed robbers going around yesterday robbing our community, victimising them again. Harvey wasn't enough, and these low lives are doing this to our community," he said.

In particular he said residents should beware of people wearing T-shirts with logos suggesting they belonged to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Homeland Security Department's Homeland Security Investigations division. He said genuine agents did not wear T-shirts and homeowners should demand ID or call 911.

The crimes add an extra level of strain to America’s fourth biggest city where authorities are trying to cope with tens of thousands of people fleeing submerged homes and flooded roads.

At least 20 deaths have been reported as a result of the record rainfall dumped in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which was downgraded to a tropical storm since making landfall on Friday. Law enforcement agencies say they have rescued more than 13,000 people in the Houston area and surrounding parts of south-east Texas and as many as 40,000 homes have been affected.

After hovering over the Gulf of Mexico, Harvey came ashore again early yesterday over the neighbouring state of Louisiana,. Its course means low-lying New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is bracing for as much as 25cm of rain in 36 hours.

Meanwhile, Houston, which enjoyed a brief spell of sunshine yesterday, continued to focus on the aftermath, issuing warnings to would-be looters.

“People displaced or harmed in this storm are not going to be easy prey,” said Kim Ogg, district attorney for Harris county, which covers the city of Houston.

She said under Texas law crimes such as burglary, assault, robbery and theft all carried stiffer sentences if committed in a county declared a disaster zone. It means burglary, usually punished by two to twenty years in prison, now carries five years to life.

“Anyone who tries to take advantage of this storm to break into homes or businesses should know that they are going to feel the full weight of the law,” she said. “Offenders will be processed around the clock without delay.”

There were also warnings of looters impersonating journalists in order to obtain addresses of empty properties.

One woman described on Twitter how she abandoned her home outside Houston to move to higher ground but then declined interview requests.

“Sorry, we were advised to not talk to anyone until we talk to our insurance adviser. Too many fake reporters looking to loot,” she wrote.

The memory of Hurricane Katrina casts a shadow over rescue efforts. Almost 2000 people died in the aftermath of the storm as the emergency operation arrived too late and quickly descended into chaos.

With thousands of people stranded in the flooded city, reports of murders, looting and carjacking circulated — although many were later found to have been exaggerated.

The emergency and botched response deeply damaged the reputation of George W Bush, president at the time, and brought promises of a better, swifter, more organised response in future from federal and local agencies.

Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (which was heavily criticised after Katrina) said this time shelters were well-organised and well-stocked.

“Let me be clear, this is not the Superdome,” he said, referring to the New Orleans football stadium that descended into anarchy when it was used as a makeshift shelter after Katrina.

He was speaking during a visit by Donald Trump to Texas, who is facing his stiffest test so far as president. He said it was too early for congratulations as he thanked rescue services. But he added that he hoped their work would become the model for future disaster operations.

“It's epic what happened, but you know what, it happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything,” he told a crowd that gathered on Tuesday outside a fire station in Corpus Christi, close to where Harvey made landfall.

Critics later complained that he failed to address the plight of victims and treated his visit as if it were a campaign rally.

Yesterday, the president offered his thoughts via Twitter: “After witnessing first hand the horror & devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, my heart goes out even more so to the great people of Texas."

Meanwhile, a national chain store has been forced to apologise after it was accused of price gouging.

Best Buy said it was “deeply sorry” after a photo was posted online showing cases of water on sale at one of its Houston stores for more than $42.

It said employees at one of its stores made a mistake by calculating the price of a case by multiplying the cost of a single bottle by the number of bottles in a case, adding it was sorry for giving anyone "even the momentary impression that we were trying to take advantage of the situation."