Katrina survivors play defense against looting

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The two men poking through the wreckage that still litters Lake Catherine island looked pretty much like the local Katrina survivors, some of whom still scavenge for necessities. But islander Marty Mayeur had his suspicions - especially when he saw the men rolling up the expensive power cable laid down earlier by lineworkers down the road.

Mr. Mayeur urged a passing sheriff's deputy to check out their story that they were contractors working on the power lines. By the time the deputy came screaming back in her cruiser, Mayeur says, the would-be looters had fled, but without the cable.

The riotous looting that swept the area right after hurricane Katrina is long gone, but in its place is opportunistic - even organized - thievery of everything from construction tools to carved mantelpieces of damaged homes.

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"We're still in early recovery, and this type of post- looting has become a real problem," says criminologist William Thornton of Loyola University in New Orleans, noting that many looters drive in from out of state. "All our small law-enforcement agencies are spread thin and really hurting because their tax base is no longer in existence."

The overall crime rate along the Louisiana-Mississippi border has doubled in recent months even as violent crime has dropped 80 percent since the storm, according to the New Orleans Police Department. Property crimes are a major part of that surge, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) told the Associated Press recently.

Some looting-prevention techniques

In response, police and area residents throughout the storm-damaged region are taking some unusual steps to prevent looting.

• In Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish, the sheriff department proposed hiring 100 private security guards from DynCorp, the same company that provides security in Iraq, to work alongside deputies.

• Here in the tightly knit Lake Catherine neighborhood of Orleans Parish, one determined resident tried setting up a roadblock to turn away vehicles driven by strangers - an illegal stunt that in ordinary times might have landed him in jail.

• Elsewhere, returning residents have marshalled neighborhood forces to look out for looters and marauders. Some have spray-painted dire warnings - such as "Looters will be drawn and quartered" - on the sides of garages and stranded boats. Along the Belle Chasse Highway in Plaquemines, one resident set out what might be called a "looter scarecrow": a bearded dummy with a fake rifle across his lap and a "No Trespassing" sign at his feet.

Sometimes, thieves depart as residents return. Tommy Ford, a resident of Chalmette, La., says the looters used to come at night on four-wheel all-terrain vehicles. When residents began to come back in January, turning on their front-porch lights as night fell, the activity moved away.

In early March, contractor Julius Williams watched as two men disassembled a stranded car in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. "It wasn't theirs, but they took it," he says.

In St. Bernard Parish, three members of a Latin American gang were recently arrested for stealing private property, though police did not say what they stole. Though most of the gang crime is in the form of graffiti, law officers worry that members of gangs such as MS-13 will be able to blend into the crowd of Hispanic construction rebuilding crews while trafficking in drugs and committing violent crime.

The sheriff department's plan to hire law-enforcement help from DynCorp would, presumably, help address that concern. Under the plan, FEMA would provide $70 million over three years to replace more than 200 parish deputies who were furloughed because of a budget crunch. Before the storm, DynCorp hired mainly ex-soldiers to guard civilians and property in Iraq. Its 100 guards would wear the sheriff department uniforms and work alongside deputies. FEMA has yet to approve the plan.

"This [plan] pretty much pokes a hole in any claim that the recovery is well in hand," says Peter Singer, author of "Corporate Warriors" about the rise of private security firms.

Hiring armed private contractors to do public police work "is a fine line," says Loyola's Mr. Thornton. "You can fall into a Rambo mentality if it's not done right, but at the same time, these kinds of people are perfect for guarding property, and that's what we need now: a zero-tolerance mentality for this sort of thing."

Scavengers vs. looters

In the meantime, here on Lake Catherine island dozens of cars with out-of-state license plates drive around, their occupants scoping out supplies such as wires and generators, even dishes and wrought-iron tables. Then, they strike at night. Nearly all of the 25 residents who had returned as of early March have their own stories about missing property or coming upon someone trespassing on their land.

For some, the focus on these scavengers can be misguided, says Erbert "Nails" Martin, a retired shrimper who rode out Katrina in his steel-reinforced island camp.

Many people who come along picking up plates, cups, and candleholders are simply trying to survive, he says. He sees the effort to root them out as another sign that poor people are no longer wanted in the area. "Authorities are pulling a power play, that's all," he says. "What would you do? I see people taking things, but they're taking [trash]. I'm glad they're taking it."

On this nine-mile-long eyebrow of sand on Lake Pontchartrain's eastern shore, resident Wayne Gagliano sees the situation differently. He recently set up an impromptu roadblock - and turned around dozens of cars he said had no business on the island.

Instead of jailing Mr. Gagliano for commandeering the law, New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley heeded the protest and assigned a car to patrol the island 24 hours a day.

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