ABC News reporter Tom Llamas ignited controversy on Tuesday after tweeting that he had informed authorities of what he described as the “looting” of a grocery store during Hurricane Harvey.
Llamas initially tweeted on Tuesday that he was at a Houston supermarket and was “witnessing looting.” He added that he “informed police of looting and Coast Guard is flying overhead.”
“Multiple officers on the scene,” he added.
#Breaking We're witnessing looting right now at a large supermarket in the NE part of Houston & police have just discovered a body nearby
— Tom Llamas (@TomLlamasABC) August 29, 2017
The tweets immediately sparked backlash, as many critics pointed out that with restaurants and stores closed, and few other options for food or assistance, it was justified for stranded survivors to take food from a supermarket.
Looting a supermarket in a flood is also known as getting food.
— John Burns (@johnburnsnc) August 29, 2017
BREAKING NEWS – people surviving natural disaster still need to eat! Even if the store is closed! Details at 11.
— Kenneth Noisewater (@K_NoiseWaterMD) August 29, 2017
Wow. This is reckless endangerment. People taking food from supermarkets in a multi-day disaster are not looters, they are survivors. https://t.co/37L0OTaP8m
— Naomi Klein (@NaomiAKlein) August 29, 2017
It's a supermarket. People are suffering. This isn't journalism. https://t.co/IDOKoKkSQw
— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) August 29, 2017
I'd like to congratulate this guy for calling the cops on people trying to get food in a disaster zone. https://t.co/PGlZR0N5DZ
— Shane (@shaneferro) August 29, 2017
Some pointed out that Llamas’ actions likely diverted key first responders away from other rescue tasks.
thank god the Products are safe, im sure the police and the coast guard dont have anything else to do right now anyway https://t.co/z2C56AUKxr
— libby watson ???? (@libbycwatson) August 29, 2017
Not all heroes wear capes. Some divert rescue helicopters to possibly shoot people who need food and blankets. https://t.co/HJl9zQ8Q5x
— Zed, Zedd 'n' Zeddy (@ZeddRebel) August 29, 2017
Llamas attempted to clarify his statement, deleting one of his tweets and explaining that he was with police officers who were investigating a body when he mentioned to them that he saw people enter the store with their “faces covered.”
Let me clear this up–we were w/police who had discovered a dead body & mentioned we saw ppl w/faces covered going into a supermarket nearby pic.twitter.com/bfM5WCCO1e
— Tom Llamas (@TomLlamasABC) August 29, 2017
Many Houstonians were trapped in homes and on rooftops without food, or have been stranded without access to food, while a number of Houston restaurants have offered to feed first responders who themselves have posted on social media asking for food for police officers.
For their part, police said that they are working on rescue activities, and will focus more on looting as the floodwater recedes in coming days.
The Houston police chief said at a press conference that police had arrested individuals breaking into a Game Stop, though he did not mention whether the department was arresting individuals seeking food.
“We’ve already arrested a handful of looters. We’ve made it real clear to our community we’re going to do whatever it takes to protect their homes and their businesses,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told ABC. “And when people come from the outside to Houston, Texas, know we’re going to be out in the city, we’re not going to rest as a police department or law enforcement community until people restore their lives.”
The incident epitomized some of the potential ethical issues reporters encounter while reporting on disaster areas.
CNN’s Ed Lavandera, who went viral on Monday while helping an elderly Texas couple escape their flooded-out home during a live shot, noted that at one point he asked to cut the live feed in order to respect the couple’s right to get to safety in privacy.
“People who are being rescued from their homes don’t usually expect a full camera crew, much less a national camera crew,” Lavandera told Business Insider in a telephone interview on Monday.
“It’s a question of dignity. I had no idea what was going to emerge from that house. And as I’m running through on live television all the scenarios that could come out of it, I just tried to slow the situation down.”
Llamas did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.