The videos were aired on repeat on local cable news channels as Hurricane Irma battered South Florida: small groups of people breaking into shoe stores and leaving with boxes of stolen sneakers. As WPLG and WSVN replayed the incidents, the footage quickly made its way into the national news cycle.
Now, citing those thefts and a handful of others, Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz is pushing for tougher laws against looting in the wake of a hurricane. A resolution
he presented during a commission meeting this month urges Tallahassee lawmakers to pass legislation requiring looters to pay restitution twice the value of any loss or damage caused by their crimes.
Florida law already imposes stiffer penalties for burglaries and thefts committed while the governor has declared a state of emergency, but Diaz wants those rules to also apply when a state of emergency has been declared on a local level.
"Despite the danger and gravity of the cyclone and seriousness of the circumstances, there were reports of looting as Hurricane Irma battered the state," the resolution reads. "Florida law enforcement played double duty — saving lives while also arresting alleged thieves for swiping goods from businesses and homes during the hurricane."
The resolution cites four examples: 26 people arrested for allegedly looting a Walmart on the north side of Miami, six men accused of breaking into stores and snagging products inside the Shops at Midtown Miami, two teenagers entering a home in Broward while the owners were out of the country, and nine people busted for breaking into a shoe store and pawnshop in Fort Lauderdale.
Considering the law Diaz wants is already on the books on the state level, his proposal to apply it to local emergencies might not meet much resistance from lawmakers.
But the intense media and political attention on looting rightly remains a controversial issue. After every natural disaster, TV stations tend to focus on reports of widespread thefts and break-ins, but their prevalence is often wildly exaggerated
— and online tend to quickly acquire racist overtones. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas this summer, racially tinged accounts of looting spread online and were widely shared by conservative news outlets. But a Houston Police Department spokesman told Snopes that looting was in reality "almost nonexistent" after the storm.
Indeed, in the grand scheme of post-Irma problems in Miami — including outrage over FPL's handling of power restoration and environmental concerns over debris removal — the 43 people Diaz cited for looting are a minor footnote among the hurricane's headaches.
Diaz couldn't be reached for comment about his proposal despite several requests made through his communications director, Olga Vega. She said the resolution, which was also backed by Commissioner Sally Heyman, passed during the commission's October 17 meeting.
Whether Tallahassee takes up the idea remains to be seen.