Looting Spreads Through New Orleans

As police and other emergency officials focus on rescue and evacuation efforts in New Orleans, reports of widespread looting continue. Robert Siegel talks with Erika Balstad of The Miami Herald, who is in New Orleans, about the looting. She says some of it has been for survival, and some was simply theft. The police presence is expected to increase.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

One of the most unpleasant sights in New Orleans this week has been the image of looting. Today the mayor of the city told the Associated Press that he has ordered 1,500 police to leave their search-and-rescue mission and return to the streets to try to prevent more theft. Reporter Erika Bolstad of The Miami Herald has witnessed and reported on the looting.

Ms. ERIKA BOLSTAD (The Miami Herald): I think looting is widely--I mean, it's just widely accepted and extensive across New Orleans right now. I saw some folks yesterday pushing carts down the street that they had loaded up at Wal-Mart a few blocks away. And, you know, some of it was full of the kind of things that are absolute essentials after a hurricane: food and water. And then there was a woman who was pushing a cart with a Dyson vacuum cleaner. So obviously there's some people who are taking advantage of open stores and very little police presence.

SIEGEL: So you're saying there is both sort of survivalist looting, which is there's no other way to get necessities, but there's also just plain theft going on at this point.

Ms. BOLSTAD: Absolutely, there's both of them. And to a certain extent you cannot blame the people who are doing survivalist looting right now. There is no commerce here, none, absolutely none. You cannot buy water, you cannot buy baby formula; there's none of that. But there's also--well, there was yesterday especially no law enforcement effort at stopping these looters because the priority here has been on saving lives and rescuing people who need to be evacuated because the waters are rising now in their neighborhoods.

SIEGEL: You've covered hurricanes before.

Ms. BOLSTAD: Yes.

SIEGEL: How does this one compare with what you've seen in the past?

Ms. BOLSTAD: This blows them all way. It really does. I mean, this is nothing like hurricanes that we've had in south Florida, which were absolutely devastating and, you know, resulted in a loss of life. But you could always drive away from those. You could always drive away and go get gas or go get water or feel safe on the streets. And this has just destroyed the city.

SIEGEL: You don't feel safe on the streets in New Orleans?

Ms. BOLSTAD: You have to be very careful. I did a lot of reporting out on the streets today, and I only took a notebook and a pen with me; that was it. I didn't want to have anything that could be stolen from me.

SIEGEL: No handbag with any...

Ms. BOLSTAD: Oh, no. Definitely...

SIEGEL: Or no camera, for that matter.

Ms. BOLSTAD: No, no, nothing like that.

SIEGEL: The mayor of New Orleans today said, not surprisingly, that when it's all counted up, certainly hundreds, probably thousands, of people will be found to have died in this storm. Do you hear lots of stories about someone in the family or someone in the house who was lost, missing or known to have died since Monday?

Ms. BOLSTAD: Yeah. Well, you hear actually more stories about people who are missing, people who have been separated from their families, people who just can't be found. And there are dead bodies in parts of the city. In fact, some people who were evacuated were told by the people who took them out in the boat, `Don't look down. You'll see floating bodies.'

SIEGEL: Erika Bolstad of The Miami Herald, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Ms. BOLSTAD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Erika Bolstad spoke with us from the central business district in downtown New Orleans.

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