As the town of Joplin, Mo., picks up the pieces of shattered lives and destroyed homes and businesses not yet a week after a devastating tornado, city officials and residents are increasingly worried about looting and fraud.
Sunday's storm killed at least 132 people, injured hundreds and left more than 156 unaccounted for in Joplin, which bore the brunt of the severe weather that has pulverized parts of the nation's midsection in recent days. Powerful storms left three people dead in the Atlanta area on Thursday while 16 people died earlier in the week during storms that raked Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas.
In Joplin, residents said looters have been picking through the rubble, hoping to grab what little is left from people who have lost nearly everything.
Compared with the staggering destruction wrought by the tornado — more than a quarter of the town was damaged — the losses due to looting have been tiny, police said. But they aggravate some people almost as much as the storm.
On the night of the tornado, as emergency responders rushed from one shattered home to the next, Steve Dixon sat outside his father's destroyed house with a baseball bat.
"They wouldn't see me sitting here in my chair, I was in the dark," he told NPR. "I'd turn my bright spotlight on them and tell them they needed to move on. Then when the police came by, I'd tell them which way they went."
Dixon's is one of many similar stories.
The day after the twister — among the deadliest and most destructive in U.S. history --Claud McDowell said he was taking stock of what remained of his roofing business when he ran off someone stealing wire out of a house "to melt it down after for the copper."
"We were really furious about that," McDowell said. "He's lucky he got out of here in one piece."
Lori Grier was at the Joplin police station to report that her truck had been stolen. She said she went back to her destroyed house on Tuesday morning and insisted her truck was there when she left. Now it's gone.
"An act of God you can't control, but then to have somebody who is low enough — scum — come in an victimize us," she said, her voice barely containing her anger. "Some people lost family members, and for somebody to just coming in and take stuff, I mean, that's just wrong."
As of midday Thursday, Joplin police had arrested 16 people for looting and burglary and four for assault since the tornado hit. But they said crime has been relatively limited. There are hundreds of officers from four states patrolling the area as well as National Guard troops who have imposed a 9 p.m. curfew.
Thousands of volunteers from churches, schools and lodges from across several states were filling the streets of Joplin offering food, medical aid and clean up help. But not all of the offers are legitimate, according to Missouri's attorney general, Chris Koster.
"In the wake of the heart-wrenching devastation of the Joplin tornado and southeast Missouri flooding will come the scam artists," Koster said on his website. "They come to those who are experiencing anguish and shock because where most see cause for charity and sympathy, they see opportunity for financial gain."
The state said it is on the lookout for price gouging on gas and building materials, phony charities and contractors who offer to do work but demand pay up front.
Joplin's half-mile-wide twister took out the city's main hospital, the high school and possibly thousands of homes. The Wal-Mart was flattened, along with the Home Depot. Hundreds of businesses and industrial buildings were lost. And an untold number of vehicles — from cars to tractor-trailers, even the hospital helicopter — were mangled.
City Manager Mark Rohr said planners are already plotting a comeback, vowing that Joplin "will recover stronger than when we began."
Federal aid will help.
President Obama has declared disasters in Jasper and Newton counties, and a key House panel has approved a $1 billion aid package to make sure federal disaster-relief accounts don't run out before the end of the budget year in September.
Funding questions aside, former Joplin Mayor Ron Richard, now a state senator, was a bit more cautious than Rohr in his vision for the immediate future.
"I wouldn't consider this an economic-development opportunity. This is just survival," Richard said. "We're just going to have to get back to where we were — as close as we can would be the goal. I'm not sure how much time it's going to take."
NPR's Sonari Glinton and Frank Morris of member station KCUR reported from Joplin, Mo., for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.