Is taking groceries in a hurricane looting? As Houston floods, police have to decide

By Greg Hadley

Businesses and cars are flooded near the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston.
Businesses and cars are flooded near the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. AP

Amidst the record-breaking rainfall from Tropical Storm Harvey throughout coastal Texas, there have been several verified reports of looting in major cities, but also intense debate over whether some people’s actions should be characterized as crime.

On Monday night, at least seven people were arrested in Houston, according to KHOU, four of whom were impersonating authorities and telling people to leave their homes before looting them. The other three were caught raiding a video game store. This is in addition to reports from KPRC that Houston’s mayor Sylvester Turner announced one person was arrested for looting on Monday.

However, Matt Pearce, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, reported that he “drove around Houston all day and didn’t see anybody steal anything.” He also tweeted that the idea that looting was widespread was “bulls---.”

What constitutes looting, however, has been the subject of disagreement, coming to a head after Tom Llamas of ABC News tweeted Tuesday afternoon that looting was taking place in a grocery store in Houston, later adding that police arrived on the scene after he informed them while they were investigating a body.

Critics on social media blasted Llamas for equating the actions of looters impersonating authorities or taking luxury items with people taking food and necessary provisions, especially as complaints about price gouging have soared during the storm, with Texas’ attorney general telling CNBC he’s received reports that some are charging $99 for a case of water.

Twitter users also accused Llamas of diverting police resources from rescuing stranded families and investigating the body.

Reports of looting and the police’s response to it during major storms has been a contentious issue for many. Widespread reports of crime and looting in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led to myths about the number of killings during the storm, as well as police opening fire on some citizens, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. All told, there were just four confirmed homicides during the storm.

While there have been instances of theft and crime after major natural disasters, including Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, experts argue that common citizens often are forced to take precious resources without paying for them to ensure their survival.

Adding to the confusion in Texas this week have been unconfirmed reports from several organizations involved in rescue and law enforcement about looting and violence.

Clyde Cain, founder of Louisiana Cajun Navy, a volunteer rescue organization, told CNN on Monday that looters had tried to steal some of his organization’s boats and fired shots at them. A post on the organization’s Facebook page initially reported the incidents, but that post was later removed. In a Facebook Live video posted to the organization’s page, Cain later said he had been told shots were fired, but that he did not yet know who had allegedly been shot at.

Another volunteer rescue organization, Cajun Navy 2016, also posted on Facebook that it had heard reports about shots being fired, but said they could not verify any of the incidents.

Joe Gamaldi, vice president with the Houston Police Officers Union, also told the Houston Chronicle that police responding to businesses near Tidwell and Mesa, Texas, were shot at by looters. The incident has not been verified, and it is not known whether any injuries resulted.

Before and after the storm, law enforcement officials promised to arrest and jail anyone caught looting during the storm, with Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon saying that “leniency and probation will be off the table for these offenses committed during this time.”