New Orleans, Louisiana (AFP) Aug 31, 2005
For schoolteacher Jared Wood the scariest moment of Hurricane Katrina was not the killer winds or waters, it was the looter threatening to thrash him for trying to take his picture.
With most of New Orleans submerged and thousands of people trapped by waters strewn with bodies, authorities also fought an outbreak of plundering by locals taking away food, appliances, jewels, clothes and even guns.
But when their food ran out in Katrina's wake, the 29-year-old Wood and his companion Erin O'Shea, 28, both normally law-abiding teachers from upper New York State, judged it necessary to join the larcenous throngs.
"We looted a store because we had no food and we had to do something," Wood told AFP outside their French Quarter hotel while waiting for a ride to nearby Baton Rouge. "It was really scary while we were in there."
The pair said they leapt through a smashed window of a local Winn-Dixie supermarket and started to stock up on soup, power bars and soy milk while other looters gathered armfuls of soda and beer.
"We were trying to get stuff that would sustain us. Some people were going by and they had a plant," O'Shea said, shrugging in disbelief at the range of items hauled away.
She said that in the aftermath of Katrina, an intelligence network sprouted on the largely deserted streets of New Orleans letting looters know where the best pickings were.
"It's all hush hush, word of mouth thing. We've been finding out just by traveling around," O'Shea said.
But any camraderie among thieves stopped when Wood whipped out a camera and tried to take pictures of the looting in the Winn-Dixie shop.
"This guy was saying, 'Give me your camera or I'm going to beat the crap out of you,'" O'Shea said.
Wood also shuddered at the memory. "That guy wanted to kill me. It wasn't my smartest moment."
The pair saw one man scrounging among shelves of pharmaceuticals, apparently for drugs. But the teachers were more interested in getting their hands on O'Shea's favorite tabloid fare.
"So we took her Star magazine and we got out," Wood said.
Jeanette Brase, a 76-year-old retiree from the midwestern state of Iowa who was visiting New Orleans with her husband, said the looting was the only frightening part of her ordeal.
She never thought she would witness such behavior first-hand, Brase said after seeing looters stream in and out of a local pharmacy: "It's something you hear about and see on TV."
"It's actually kind of sickening. I don't know if they (the police) can stop them or if they just have too much to do."
Rosemary Rimmer-Clay, 51, a social worker from Brighton, England, who was here with her two grown sons, said Katrina made her trip "90 percent boredom and 10 percent sheer terror."
"The police said there was rioting and we saw people running with bags full of inappropriate items. It looked quite dodgy," she said. "It felt like a film set and we were in the middle of it."
Authorities sought to tighten security, with gangs of armed men reported roaming the city and one store emptied of its entire collection of weapons, according to the Times-Picayune newspaper.
One police officer was shot in the head but was expected to survive, the newspaper said.
In the Mississippi town of Biloxi, thieves were reported to have taken slot machines from devastated casinos.
Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco said looting was a growing problem but not the top priority. "We don't like looters one bit, but first and foremost is search and rescue," she said.
At least one looter, however, was feeling pangs of remorse.
O'Shea said she and Wood had to return home by Tuesday in time for the start of classes and "I plan on sending a check to the Winn-Dixie for 50 dollars when I get back."
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