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Florida officials warn potential looters: no get out of jail free cards

Blue compact car dangling over a ditch near a crumbled road in Matlacha Pass in Southwest Florida
Tom James
Blue compact car dangling over a ditch near a crumbled road in Matlacha Pass in Southwest Florida

Standing near a broken bridge that otherwise would have taken him to his home, a Pine Island man unable to get to his home asked Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials who were in town assessing the damages to Lee County’s barrier islands on Friday what assurances they can give that people won’t come ashore and steal what’s left of their belongings. DeSantis vowed that looting and taking advantage of people already suffering from the devastating impacts of Hurricane Ivan will not be tolerated.

Officials said there’s round-the-clock law enforcement on the barrier islands; places most impacted by Ian’s wrath.

Attorney General Ashley Moody took it a step further saying she wants looters to stay in jail and not be released on bond. Moody also said maintaining law and order in the aftermath of the catastrophic damage is a top priority and that she’s reached out to state attorneys with specific directives and requests to that end.

“What I have told them is consider when we’re in these states of emergencies asking for pretrial detention, making sure that’s part of your consideration. If someone is arrested or caught going into businesses or homes that cannot be tolerated in Florida because we will have another storm. We just hit the peak hurricane season. We’re not through this season. We’re not through this season,” said Moody.

Moody said she’s worried about the perception home thefts or business looting during a state of emergency could have on the public in future emergencies.

“We don’t want people ever, moving into the future to say, ‘Well, when Ian hit, people went into homes and they robbed their homes they burglarized their homes. I don’t want to leave my home.’ We never want that to be an impediment to people getting out when we say get out.”

Moody also said “We are not going to look like Chicago or New York where we’re letting people out in 24 hours so they can go back and loot another home. That will not be tolerated here.”

Sheriff Marceno said deputies continue to perform door to door search and rescue operations and wellness checks. He said people hoping to hear about the condition of loved ones they can’t contact have been among the thousands of calls the sheriff’s department has been fielding.

Marceno said deputies are often encountering residents who have not been able to keep up with the news.

“Some residents just don’t have the ability to have internet. They’re not watching the press conferences. So, we want to personally bring that level of service to them and talk to them and say, ‘Listen, this is where we are. What are you experiencing?’ And we listen to them and some are saying ‘I can’t get to my home.’ So, we want to deliver the information to them the best we can as fast as possible and the men and women in the sheriff’s office will be out here doing that.”

Marceno reiterated that the best way for civilians to help is to stay in their homes and off the streets to avoid possibly impairing law enforcement and first responders’ efforts.

When Ian made landfall on Cayo Costa as a powerful Category Four hurricane with winds of 155 mph, it took out an entire section of the Matlacha Pass Bridge leaving residents of Matlacha, Pine Island, St. James City and Bokeelia indefinitely separated from the mainland by car.

One Matlacha resident nearby the press conference who identified himself as Whitney nearly broke down talking to reporters. “I know we’ve lost a few friends out here that didn’t get out in time,” said Whitney.

“One of them, their roof blew off and him and his wife went on top of the refrigerator with life jackets and we haven’t heard from them in three days.”

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