Tornado Aftermath: Exploitation of Destruction

PHOTO: A resident of Henryville, Ind. looks through the debris on March 4, 2012, after a tornado destroyed her home.PlayBrynn Anderson/Lincoln Journal Star/AP Photo
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As if digging out of the rubble of deadly tornadoes were not enough of a challenge: Midwest residents and cleanup crews now have to work around people trying to exploit the destruction.

Such opportunists come in many forms, including looters, tornado tourists, fraudulent charities and contractors looking to capitalize.

"Unfortunately, it's that way and it's been that way," Albert Hale, emergency manager for Laurel County, K.Y., said with a sigh. "It's a part of society.

"It was brought to my attention yesterday that we have had some looting going on."

Officials stopped a vehicle that had a large amount of copper in it, Hale said, adding that authorities have prevented wide-scale looting with heightened police presence. But not all places have been exempt from stealing.

Sherman Sykes, 70, was grilling a hamburger at Budroe's Family Restaurant, which he owns with his partner of 32 years, Maureen Williams, when he heard the warning for all residents of Henryville, Ind., to take cover.

"I told everybody to get to the basement. The tornado is coming," Sykes said. "You know how people are; they wait until the last minute and kept standing there."

Sykes said one man was so paralyzed by fear that he could not speak or move and Sykes had to physically take the man to the basement.

Before Sykes went to take cover in the basement, he saw a yellow school bus from the high school across the street get sucked into the air and pulled toward the restaurant. It slammed into the restaurant's parking lot and flipped over before Sykes rushed to the basement.

"You can't describe it. It's worse than the movies," Sykes recalled. "The roar. People say the roar sounds like a train; it sounds like 10 trains. Your ears just pop."

"I came up from the basement to the kitchen and looked out and saw the bus in the dining room and said, 'Oh, my God,' and back down I went," he said.

All nine customers as well as Sykes and his family were uninjured, but he is missing the restaurant's money bag they were preparing to deposit and several shipments of food products that had been delivered that morning.

Sykes said he did not want to accuse anyone of stealing and that the items could have been swept away in the tornado, but it is likely that they were stolen.

Hale said a more prevalent problem has been tornado tourists and others looking to get a glimpse of the destruction. "Everyone wants to go see the devastation. 'If I'm not affected, I want to go see what happened to you.' They're being nosy," Hale said. "We've taken issue with that."

Local law enforcement, Kentucky State Police and the National Guard, in addition to other agencies, have created checkpoints to prevent curious photographers and out-of-towners from interfering with cleanup or even risking injury.

Authorities in Crittenden, K.Y., have dealt with similar problems, especially in Harvester's, a subdivision that was hit hard Friday.

"There's one lane in and one lane out and what we were experiencing was people from Ohio, Indiana and other counties wanting to come into the subdivision and see the damage," Grant County Sheriff's Deputy Brian Maines said. "Workers are picking up debris and at the same time, you've got traffic as people are trying to sight-see and not paying attention. It's just a dangerous situation."

More than 60 apartments and houses were affected in the subdivision, some of which have been damaged beyond repair.

"There are several structures in there, like a three-story apartment building, where the top is completely down, walls are hanging down and roof materials are hanging down," Maines said. "It's definitely an unsafe situation for people to be around there."

The entrance to the neighborhood had to be blocked off this weekend and officers were checking ID's to make sure only residents, cleanup crews and officials were allowed in.

"Another large problem is contractors kind of freelancing and wanting to get in the neighborhood to go door-to-door to see if they could get any work," Maines said.

Officials don't want these potential hustlers "knocking on doors as people are trying to pick up their belongings and figure out what happened," he added

Amid all the loss, many people near and far are looking for ways to give back but being cautioned that disasters often give way for fraudulent charities to attempt to take advantage of people.

The Better Business Bureau has released a guide for people wanting to give to tornado-relief charities.

"Givers should take steps to assure themselves that their donations will go to legitimate and reputable charities and relief efforts that have the capability to help victims," the Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance said in a statement.

Officials advise potential donors to verify the charity's accountability, as well as to learn how and when they will be using the donations.

Dozens of tornadoes ravaged parts of the Midwest and the South last week, with a death toll of 39 people.