As many West Virginians continue to clean up from last week’s flooding, concerns about theft and looting linger in communities hit hard by the storm.
Homes are being left open to dry and many residents affected by the disaster are staying elsewhere -- in shelters or with friends and family. The level of concern varies from town to town and some communities are implementing curfews to stave off the possibility of suspicious activity.
On Thursday night, as a massive storm ravaged many areas of the state, pharmacist Aaron Gwinn sat at home, thinking to himself about the possibility of someone breaking into his business -- the Greenbrier Medical Arts Pharmacy, a few miles northeast of downtown Lewisburg. Sometime over the course of Thursday night, with all of the rain coming down and flood waters starting to rise in neighboring communities, Gwinn said someone actually was trying to break in.
“In the wake of all that was taking place, somebody thought that it would be a good opportunity -- with the police diverted elsewhere -- they could break into the pharmacy with minimal effort and wouldn’t encounter any resistance,” Gwinn said.
When he arrived at the pharmacy Friday morning, a window was broken, but nothing was stolen. Others in the surrounding areas didn’t have the same luck.
Longtime resident of White Sulphur Springs Sadie Fraley said a friend of hers had a stove stolen out of her home over the weekend. Fraley remembers seeing a lot of unfamiliar faces around town.
“It kind of scared me because I was ready to approach them before I called the police and say ‘Hey, if you don’t have business here, you need to move on,’ ” Fraley recalled.
“I’m glad I didn’t. It was about twelve of them. I’d never seen them here. Like I said, I grew up in this town. I own a restaurant in town. I know a lot of people,” she added.
Reports of breaking and entering, theft and looting have led local officials affected by the flood to impose curfews in some communities, including White Sulphur Springs and Alderson. The curfews was implemented via city ordinance. However, officials in both municipalities failed to provide those ordinances when requested.
Judy Hoover has been volunteering her time at the Alderson Community Center, which is now functioning as a shelter and donation center. She says her home was not affected by flooding, but she’s glad there’s a curfew in her hometown.
“Our house is sitting there all day. Of course, it is locked. But, you know, locked doors don’t keep people out. I do know that some other people have been concerned,” Hoover said.
“I don’t think we’ve had any [looting or break-ins] in Alderson this year, which I’m very proud of. It seems that everybody has stuck together. But, it’s still a concern.”
Patrolman Mac Brackenrich, of the Alderson Police Department, has been enforcing the 11 o’clock curfew in the town that’s split between Greenbrier and Monroe counties.
Brackenrich, like many other city officials in Alderson, says the curfew is “out of an abundance of caution” and most everyone is cooperating. Mostly, it’s just a warning. He’ll pull up to teenagers walking around or vehicles on the streets and simply tell them to go home.
But around 11:30 Monday night, Brackenrich wrote his first two citations for residents violating the curfew after stopping a car driving the wrong way down a one-way street.
“I’m going to cite them both for the curfew,” he said as he hopped back into his truck, “just because he was well aware of the curfew and she was well aware of the curfew, too.”
Down Route 60 in Fayette County, Sheriff Steve Kessler confirms his department made one arrest for theft-related crimes following last week’s flood. He says they’ve received other complaints from county residents and is quick to ask those out and about to heed the warning.
“We were just told that they was people coming into the area, sitting on four wheelers, and four wheel drive vehicles cruising through. We pretty much know who lives in those areas, we'll just stop and check them. If you don't live there, you don't belong there,” said Kessler.
In other flood-affected areas, there’s no official count of how many complaints or reports have been filed with law enforcement. Resources are stretched so thin that, in many cases, paperwork has yet to be filed with city or county clerks’ offices.
Pharmacist Aaron Gwinn in Lewisburg says that’s the case with the incident at his store. He feels the attempted break in was an isolated incident, but thinks many similar ones in the area were a matter of survival and not maliciousness. He recounts an incident reported at his church as the storm hit the area.
“In my church that same night, in Harts Run, somebody had broken into the church. However, they were just, obviously, seeking refuge. They used some tablecloths to cover up with and slept through the night, helped themselves to some coffee and that sort of thing—and left twenty dollars into the offering plate and did not destroy anything,” Gwinn said.
“They took good care of the place. No police reports were filed because we were glad they were able to find a dry place to sleep for the night,” he added.
Gwinn, like many others in areas affected by the storm, feels the goodness of the community far outweighs reports of theft or hostility.
However, city officials in White Sulphur Springs say a curfew remains in place indefinitely -- at least until a large number of residents are able to return to their homes and recovery efforts aren’t occupying so much of law enforcement’s time. Alderson city officials say Wednesday night marked the final night of the town's curfew.