Hurricane Sandy's darker side: Looting and other crime

Residents say the Rockaways section of the Queens in New York City is a family friendly place. But Hurricane Sandy has brought looting and robberies, despite an increased police presence.

Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS
A boy watches as members of the U.S. Army National Guard unload food and supplies in the Rockaways section of the Queens borough of New York on Friday.

The last bus from Brooklyn rolled into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaways, Queens, on Friday evening just before 6 p.m., as darkness slipped quickly over the beach-town streets, obscuring curbside piles of discarded furniture and electronics.

No lights powered on inside the modest one and two-story houses, as they haven't for the past five nights, since Hurricane Sandy – a post-tropical cyclone with 80 mile-per-hour winds –  struck this small peninsula and the greater New York City area and New Jersey on Monday, knocking out power for 3.5 million homes and businesses.

When the bus stopped, the 11 passengers scuttled out and set off for home, without lingering on the normally commercial street. Residents describe the Rockaways as a family friendly place, with certain pockets of rough neighborhoods.

But some people say Sandy's aftereffect of darkness is making the area more dangerous, resulting in looting and at-home robberies, despite an increased police presence.  

“I saw this guy stealing televisions from a nursing home right on the boardwalk on Tuesday, and the workers were chasing him up the street,” said Ben Cooper, who lives in Belle Harbor. “Every time I saw him he had a different TV.”

Mr. Cooper and a few friends stood talking on his house's porch. It was about 7:45 p.m. and they were the only people around. The ocean breeze was getting colder and stronger. He held his flashlight and looked out onto the street, which was still covered with sand. 

“There's no lights, there's no cameras, there's no alarms, there's no nothing. It's kind of scary, you know?” he said.

His neighbor, Talentin Gutierez showed a reporter a borrowed generator, worth about $2,000.  His was robbed the other day. Tonight, he will sleep in his car – wrecked from water damage – to guard the generator.

An hour later, a New York City Police Department officer looked on as four National Guards unloaded cases of bottled water and ready-to-eat emergency food packs outside a recently launched community center half a block away.

Looting and robberies have been up across all of New York City since Sandy hit, said the officer.

In Far Rockaway Peninsula, 15 people were charged with looting businesses on Wednesday. Reported arrests in Manhattan, Coney Island, Brooklyn, and Staten Island for looting at businesses like supermarkets and sneaker stores totaled 20 last week.

An NYPD spokesperson said in a phone interview that a team is currently investigating how the blackout for swaths of the city has impacted looting and robbery rates in New York City.

In New Jersey, the Monmouth County prosecutor was quoted as saying that police made 25 arrests for burglaries and looting incidents. But Governor Chris Christie has said that there is no evidence of widespread looting in the state.

Back in the Rockaways, about 20 blocks away from Belle Harbor, Candice Dugar waited in line for soup nearby a well-lit police precinct. She said she heard about a break-in at a sneaker store, Lee's, and a local convenience store nearby a group of public housing projects.

Melvin Flemings said a group of men looted a liquor store near the police precinct in this neighborhood, Rockaway Park, and are now selling the alcohol on the beach.

Not everyone in the neighborhood has heard of looting and robberies since Sandy.

“I haven't heard anything, but if they are taking from the grocery stores, it's because they need it,” said Rebecca Kelly talking as she ate a cup of soup. “There's no grocery stores open.”

The community center, one of several that have popped up since Sandy, was one of the few places lit as the night thickened and the streets cleared of people. It's powered by solar panels from a Greenpeace truck, which arrived Thursday with groups of volunteers and former Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

Two local women helped out inside the center, passing out food and clothing. They waited until after 10 p.m. for friends to accompany them on their 5 minute walk home. They are afraid of more than just petty crime, a concern they never had before they lost electricity.

One older woman, who asked only to be identified by her first name, Rosemary, said someone tried to break into her house early Tuesday morning when she was asleep. Today, she found her front door frame ripped off.

“Everything is dark. People take advantage of that factor. It's only normal. It's not only here,” she said.

Beatrice Loperfito witnessed two separate attempted home robberies last night. “I heard them breaking windows and I went out with my flashlight. These guys ran and the cops came.”

She said she is more worried, though, about the two convicted rapists living on her block.

“I have to protect myself. I have nothing else to give but myself. Everything else is all gone,” she explained.

The women and the rest of the volunteers eventually left and the lingering community center volunteers locked its doors close to 11 p.m., leaving bread and water outside.

Inside, the roaming police cars' blue and red beams reflected through the center's glass doors and onto a wall throughout the night.

In the morning, sunlight faded in slowly at 7 a.m. On the main drag in Belle Harbor, small groups of people huddled, waiting for express buses to Brooklyn and Queens.

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