Tornado survivors guard against looters

Tornado survivors guard against looters

April 30th, 2011 by Beth Burger in News

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Robert Gentry stands guard over the house he grew up in.

He no longer lives at the home on a lane named after his family. At this point, no one lives there.

The house - bought last fall by Gentry's sister and her husband, Lisa and Larry Walters - became unlivable a couple of days ago when a tornado ripped through, knocking down trees, shattering windows, warping metal.

On Thursday, a carload of people pulled down the lane, and Gentry, a Cleveland police officer in the late 1970s, asked what they were doing.

"We're just looking," the woman replied.

Gentry clicked back into cop mode.

"Well, we don't need people looking. You can turn right around," he said.

Even though the house is wrecked, Gentry is protecting it from looters and gawkers, some of whom come armed with cameras to permanently save the ruin. The Gentry siblings have taken turns policing the street while other family members cut up downed trees and unload items from the small white-frame home.

Looting and gawking have cropped up at other locations in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama where Wednesday's deadly tornadoes wreaked havoc. Authorities all over the region are blocking streets not only for the sake of safety, but also to keep out rubberneckers and possible thieves.

In Dade County, Ga., Sheriff Patrick Cannon was touring the tornado's path in a helicopter when he saw his own mangled house - and someone rooting around in it.

In DeKalb County, Ala., where 32 people have been confirmed killed, long lines of people driving around slowed traffic in the hardest-hit areas north of Rainsville. Some arrived to help family and friends, but others took pictures and drove on by.

Heather Rossen, whose home was blown off its foundation and scattered in a nearby field, said looters have been in the area.

"It is hard," she said. "We've already lost everything we have."

On Friday afternoon, DeKalb deputies closed down some areas and Chief Deputy Michael Edmondson said his department has been criticized for not closing down more roads. He said the department's resources are stretched thin on search and rescue operations.

"It would take half the police in Alabama to close down our roads," he said. "Most of the devastation is in very rural areas, spread out all over."

Near Gentry Lane in Cleveland, there was talk among residents that looters were taking the valuables that tornado victims had piled near their ruined homes. But with the winds carrying belongings near and far, residents acknowledged it was impossible to be absolutely sure if something was stolen by a person or by the tornado.

"You wouldn't believe the people just coming through here and picking up stuff," said Wayne Burgess, whose home on Hall Norwood Road was destroyed.

Bob Gault, public information officer for the Bradley County Sheriff's Office, said there was one report of looting just after the storms. Authorities encouraged sightseers to stay away because the extra traffic is hindering cleanup and recovery efforts, he said

A curfew was issued for the affected areas of Bradley between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Deputies will start asking for IDs when they encounter cars in the those areas.

On Friday, Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers pleaded for people to stay away from Ringgold, where eight people died.

"Please, if you don't have a reason, if you don't live in Ringgold, please stay home," he said.

Summers said deputies were "aggressively patrolling" Ringgold and had gotten reports of looting but had not substantiated the claims.

He said utility crews and other workers cannot do their jobs if the streets are gridlocked with gawkers.

Most of Ringgold's damage occurred at the city's exit on Interstate 75, where a hotel, gas station and restaurants were reduced to kindling. The wreckage can be seen from the highway and motorists on I-75 have been slowing sometimes to a crawl as they view the destruction.

On Ringgold's Boynton Drive, a road that runs parallel to I-75, Wilson's Funeral Home sits next to a hill that overlooks the decimation at Exit 348. All around the funeral business, cars have been parking for the past few days, unloading adults, kids and long-time Ringgold residents who want to see the results of the storms' fury.

"It's your city and you want to see the devastation because it's so heart-wrenching," said Caroline Parker, who lives on the town's outskirts.

Parker's husband, Edward, was taking photos while their two sons gazed at the wreckage.

"I've never seen anything like this," Edward Parker said.

Back at the Gentrys' home in Cleveland, family members said they are trying to keep away looters and gawkers to protect the memory of a woman who died on their property.

Rhonda Smith lived with her two teenage boys in a mobile home near the Gentrys' house. The storm her home and slammed it into a storage building behind the Gentry house.

Smith drew her last breath in the rubble. Her 14-year-old suffered internal injuries and remains hospitalized, but her a 12-year-old escaped with only minor injuries.

Staff writers Joy Lukachick, Andy Johns and Mariann Martin contributed to this report.