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Hurricane Michael: powerless victims in Florida are being targeted by armed looters

Police in one county say they pick up about 10 people every night for looting

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2018, 11:24pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2018, 11:42pm

Armed looters are targeting homes and businesses in Florida that still do not have electricity after being ravaged by Hurricane Michael a week ago.

Bay County Sheriff’s Major Jimmy Stanford said deputies have arrested about 10 looters every night since the state took a direct hit from the strong Category 4 storm last Wednesday. In some parts of the county, people have spray-painted signs warning that “looters will be shot”.

Callaway resident Victoria Smith told The News Herald that thieves came into her home while she and her four children were asleep with the front door open to allow a breeze inside.

“I must’ve been so exhausted from everything in the past days I didn’t even hear them come in,” Smith said. “They just snatched my purse out of my hands and ran … It was all we had.”

Often the looters are armed, Stanford said.

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“Most of our officers lost their homes, have been working 16 to 18-hour shifts with no sleep, no shower, and now they’re encountering armed individuals,” he said. “It’s a stressful time for everyone in Bay County.”

The storm killed at least 16 people in Florida, most of them in the coastal county that took a direct hit, state emergency authorities said on Tuesday. At least 10 deaths have been reported elsewhere.

The scope of the storm’s fury became clearer after nearly a week of missing-persons reports and desperate searches of the Florida Panhandle neighbourhoods devastated by the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental US in nearly 50 years.

Bay County includes Mexico Beach, the ground-zero town of 1,000 people that was nearly obliterated.

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Nearly 137,000 Florida customers are still without power in an 11-county region that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the Georgia border, according to information compiled by state emergency management officials.

Mobile phone service has started returning to the stricken zone, including Panama City, where residents haven’t been able to contact loved ones or call for help. One telecommunications company said it would give a three-month credit to customers in Bay and Gulf counties.

Governor Rick Scott had been criticising phone companies over what he called a slow restoration of service.

Sitting outside in the sweltering heat in Panama City fanning herself with a flyswatter, Christy Tanksley said the sudden improvement in mobile service was a huge relief.

“A lot of people didn’t even know we had evacuated and come back,” said Tanksley. “I turned my phone on this morning and it started going crazy. There were all kinds of messages, Facebook notifications, emails and emergency alerts.”