Unfortunately for the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Hurricane (now Tropical Storm) Florence, the rash of empty properties and businesses left behind represent prime targets for criminals seeking to take advantage of the disaster conditions to pull off a few big scores. Residents of Houston endured a wave of looting during Hurricane Harvey last summer, and now it appears that a similar storm-inspired crime wave is afflicting several badly-hit counties in North Carolina.
In response, police are stepping up efforts to thwart burglaries after police in Brunswick county arrested four young men on burglary-related charges, according to the Charlotte Observer. Another suspect is being sought.
The Brunswick sheriff’s office posted on Facebook Friday morning that officers had "detained several individuals throughout the night for felony B&E," prompting sheriff John Ingram to issue a stern warning: Anybody caught looting will be locked up.
"I want to send a message to the criminal element that’s looking for that opportunity, we’re gonna do everything within our power, to be very vigilant, working with our community, and if you seek to prey upon the citizens of Brunswick County, we’re going to do everything we can to lock you up," Sheriff Ingram said. "I made sure ahead of time, that we had adequate space for anybody that wanted to try that."
The message followed reports that four people were arrested overnight in connection with break-ins of cars and a convenience store.
Dashaun Smith, 25, and Brandon Bellamy, 30, were jailed on charges of possession of burglary tools and breaking and/or entering after a break-in at Tommy’s Mini Mart in Leland, according to WWAY. Devin Harris, 21, and Justice Harris, 18, were jailed on a charge of breaking and/or entering a vehicle, the station reported.
All four mug shots were swiftly posted online by the Asheville Citizen-Times:
Brunswick isn't the only county struggling with break-ins. As the Herald pointed out, police in York and Chester counties (in in neighboring South Carolina) also warned that anyone who commits a crime during what likely will be emergency conditions for days during Hurricane Florence will "go to jail."
Any attempt during the weather conditions to commit looting, crimes of opportunity at closed businesses or homes, or scams concerning charities or the needy will be investigated and prosecuted, said South Carolina’s police and prosecutors.
"The York County Sheriff’s Office and all of the local police departments will be extremely vigilant to detect those who will attempt to criminally capitalize on the effects of this storm," York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson said. "Criminals should know that during weather events such as this, law enforcement is out in full force."
Authorities warned any residents remaining in the area to swiftly report any crimes they happen to witness. Under no circumstances should citizens try to handle crimes themselves.
Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood said his officers will shuttle emergency health officials to and from Chester’s hospital, assist the elderly and special needs persons, and clear roads and assist flooding victims. But if people commit "awful and intolerable crimes of opportunity" during the emergency, Underwood said there will be "zero tolerance."
"Criminals who break the law during this time, when law enforcement is doing all it can to help the public, will go to jail," Underwood said.
Tolson and Underwood urge anyone who sees a crime to report it and let law enforcement handle it.
"Don’t try and handle it yourself," Underwood said. "Call the law."
Meanwhile, the death toll from the storm climbed to at least 5 individuals on Saturday as what is now Tropical Storm Florence slowed to a crawl. Authorities expect torrential rains to continue through the weekend, raising the likelihood of flash flooding and other disasters.