Isabel Torres could not believe it. She rolled down her window to be sure the rain falling against her car’s windows had not distorted the events unfolding a few feet away. It hadn’t.
Two men, maybe boys — she isn’t sure — had just walked out of a big-box store closed Sunday due to Hurricane Harvey. Both were carrying objects. At least one had a massive TV perched atop his head.
Torres captured the incident on her cellphone and posted the video on Facebook: “These [guys] do not miss an opportunity !!.. This happened during Harvey storm in Houston Texas . . . !!!!”
As of Friday evening, Torres’s video was viewed 1.1 million times. It was aired repeatedly on Fox News.
On Tuesday, Houston city officials instituted a curfew — not because of the dangers posed by live electric wires in dark standing water or the possibility of vermin, disease and predatory animals. Looting, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, would not be tolerated in the city.
In the wake of massive disasters, fears about crime and other forms of disorder almost always rise, experts say. But while some people do take advantage of the collective distraction, the fear of crime — particularly looting — typically outstrips the reality, said experts who study storms and recoveries.
There were about 63 people charged with storm-related crimes including burglary and theft from Aug. 26, the day after Harvey made landfall, to this past Thursday, according to the Harris County district attorney’s office. Harris County has a population of nearly 5 million people, including the city of Houston.
“Fears of looting are common in disasters and maybe even more common than actual looting itself,” said Andy Horowitz, an assistant professor of history at Tulane University who focuses on disasters.
He said fear of crime is typical after a massive disaster, when peace of mind goes with the rest. If a person lacks basics such as clean underwear and a dry place to put their children to sleep, feeling frazzled and grasping for anything that will restore a sense of order becomes attractive, Horowitz said.
“There’s no doubt that on any given day, there are people who are going to steal other people’s stuff,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, who helped oversee the military response to Hurricane Katrina. “But what we see after these storms is a greatly overexaggerated concern.”
In the days and weeks after Katrina made landfall, major news outlets relayed reports of rape and murder inside emergency shelters — many of which were later found to be false and may have delayed aid to evacuees. Some cable news broadcasts looped images of frantic flood survivors scavenging stores for food and supplies.
“That’s not looting; that’s survival mode,” Honore said.
Race and class shaped perceptions after Katrina, experts said. Most of those stranded were both black and poor.
“There’s a bias at play. People think that if you’re poor or black you’re always trying to steal something,” Honore said. “These warnings about looting validate the stereotypes that people hold about poor people.”
Stories from Katrina frequently depicted groups of black men looking for food and dry land as animal-like bandits, said media and culture researcher Michael Lacy.
Thursday night, when Lacy was watching CNN, a reporter asked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who led that state through the recovery after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, what people should expect. “Looting is going to come next,” he said.
“I have no idea on what he based that, but that’s what he said,” Lacy said.
Under Texas law, those convicted of property crimes committed during the state of emergency in Houston can face enhanced sentences, said Dane Schiller, a spokesman with the Harris County district attorney’s office.
“The crimes have included breaking into stores and attempting to steal liquor; sports shoes and other items,” Schiller told The Washington Post in an email. “Persons have been caught burglarizing homes that have been left uninhabited due to Harvey. One tried to use a sport utility vehicle to smash open an ATM.”
The Harris County district attorney has directed prosecutors to “hit looters hard.”
An Aug. 29, a message appeared on the Facebook page of the “Cajun Navy” — a loosely organized group of citizen rescuers — saying “looters shooting at Cajun Navy and stealing boats. Cajun Navy standing down in Dickinson.”
The post was taken down within an hour, but it had already spread on social media. The Cajun Navy’s Facebook page then put out a warning saying not to believe the initial announcement and “the Cajun navy is not standing down.”
Meanwhile, Cajun Navy leaders said there were no boats stolen. A volunteer came across one case of shooting when people in need of help fired in the air to grab the volunteer’s attention. The family was marooned in chest-high water.
John Hoffman, a volunteer who has been working rescue shifts with the Cajun Navy, said there have been concerns among volunteers of running across looters, but after several days out in the floodwaters, he had yet to experience a single threat.
“There was, at one point, some radio chatter about people trying to steal boats at gunpoint, but there’s nothing to indicate that that’s true,” Hoffman said. “There will always be criminals, but as far as the rescues I was involved in are concerned, things couldn’t have gone better.”
Emily Wax contributed to this report.