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Isaac Machado hides behind his hat against his mother Delores just outside the scene of an explosion on Galindo Street in Austin, Texas, U.S., March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Flores - RC19E5318870

After bombings, Austin residents afraid to walk their own streets

Before a series of bombs started to explode across the city, Scott Gallagher would often meet his friends at their house and walk through the neighborhood to downtown Austin. Two nights ago, he walked several blocks, in the dark, on poorly lit streets — a similar scenario to the one two men in their 20s faced when they accidentally set off a bomb tripwire Sunday.

It has made them think twice about how they get around their neighborhood.

“This terrorist waits for the cover of darkness,” Gallagher said. “All my friends are really worried about this because nobody knows when or where this person will strike next. Or even what kind of attack they will put out next.”

Four bombs have shaken the city this month. A fifth exploded at a FedEx facility in Schertz, Texas, just north of San Antonio. Gallagher lives only a few miles from where the first bomb went off in north Austin on March 2. One of Gallagher’s friends lives in Travis Country, the neighborhood where the fourth bomb went off Sunday night.

“He said it’s very scary when it hits so close to home,” Gallagher said.

Austin police said the tripwire technique used in Sunday’s attack demonstrated a “higher level of sophistication” than the past three bombings.

“We’re very concerned that with tripwires a child could be walking down a sidewalk and hit something,” FBI special agent in charge Chris Combs said at a Monday morning news conference. “So it’s very important that here in Austin if anyone sees anything suspicious, you do not go near that package and you immediately call law enforcement.”

READ MORE: Austin is looking for a ‘serial bomber.’ Here’s what we know

Police are calling on residents to be vigilant even as they try to maintain a sense of normalcy.

But those living and working in Austin say it is a difficult balance to find.

“I’m honestly scared to walk anywhere around Austin now,” Andres Vecchio wrote on Twitter. If these serial bombings were meant to incite terror, they’re definitely working.”

Bryce Dubee, an Iraq and Afghanistan army war veteran, likened the feeling to his fear of IEDs.

“All my army friends, we know the experience and we’ve been through training–pay attention to your surroundings, don’t touch things.” Dubee told the PBS NewsHour. “It feels normal to me, but I feel bad that other people have to experience that as well.”

Police said all five incidents have similarities but have not yet made a broader connection or identified a motive. The victims in the three earlier attacks this month were Hispanic or black, in largely minority neighborhoods.

Sunday’s bombing was different. The explosion was on the city’s southeast side in a majority white neighborhood, and the two victims in Sunday’s bombing were white males in their 20s. Police have not determined whether any of the bombings were racially motivated. But investigators said Monday that they were “clearly dealing with what we expect to be a serial bomber at this point.”

With Sunday’s explosion, “everything changed,” said Nelson Linder, the president of the Austin NAACP.

“Being in a different part of the city now, I think people have gotten the message now that no one is safe and that no matter what your color is,” he said.

Linder and the NAACP have been working with the police and community members since the second and third bombings went off March 12. Linder and other community leaders are supporting police calls for the public to look out for suspicious items. But they’re also urging Austin residents not to let fear overwhelm them.

“If we continue to live our lives on as normal, which is full of tacos and trying to get along, I think we’ll be fine,” said Chas Moore, the co-founder and executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition.

The coalition organized a town hall last week to bring together community members and law enforcement after the first three bombings. The 300 people who attended said they were afraid of future attacks and frustrated with the police department’s response, the Austin American-Statesman reported. Since then, Moore said he has been encouraging people to come together, to support their neighbors and the police.

One of the biggest ways they can help is by reporting suspicious activity.

The Austin police chief said the city brought in additional bomb tech teams to handle the extra workload in anticipation of a spike in people calling in suspicious activity and items. In a less than 48 hours period after the second and third bombings, the Austin Police Department said it had received 265 suspicious package calls.

“I think people’s senses need to be heightened,” Moore said. “But I don’t think people need to operate in fear, because if we operate in fear, this person is winning.”

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