27
Oct
07

Disaster Discrimination

January 16, 1965 was a typical Saturday morning in Wichita, Kansas.  It was very cold outside.  My dad had left early to give a Civil Service Exam at Wichita State University in northeast Wichita.  My grandmother went about her business as a housemother at the Institute of Logopedics in northeast Wichita.  I was at home with my mom eagerly awaiting my 12th birthday celebration later in the day.   Suddenly, an event took place that literally shook the city of Wichita.  Here is the official account from the Wichita, Kansas government archives:

“On January 16, the most tragic fire incident in the history of the City occurred, when a loaded jet fuel tanker crashed in northeast Wichita. The aircraft had just taken off from McConnell Air Force Base in the southeast part of the City. Due to engine failure, the huge plane plummeted to earth in a gigantic fire and explosion that rocked the City and sprayed the adjacent homes with burning fuel. The first company to arrive at the scene immediately radioed for a second alarm. Additional calls for assistance brought off-duty personnel, units from the Sedgwick County, McConnell Air Force Base, and reserve firefighters. The toll in this disaster numbered thirty lives, including seven crew members of the aircraft. Ten homes were lost and others were damaged. Although this type of accident had been feared for years, this crash was the only one involving a large aircraft to occur despite thousands of flights over the City.” 

Personally, it was the worst birthday I ever had.   My mother was asleep after working all night as a nurse at the VA hospital.  I had to wake my mom up and tell her a plane had crashed in Wichita.  She proceeded to panic when she heard where the plane went down.  She was sure her husband and mother both had been killed.  She did contact her mother and found out she was fine, but my dad never did call, he just showed up at home later with “stories” about the crash.  As it turned out, the plane crashed less than a mile from where my grandmother and dad were at the time.  A horrible day in Wichita for sure, but my family escaped the pain of losing loved ones by the slimmest of margins. 

This event, needless to say, was a huge story in Wichita at the time.  But, due to the crash taking place on a Saturday, it did not receive the national media attention such a catastrophe would normally have gained.  The plane crashed in the heart of the Wichita “ghetto”.  Because of this, it took many years of crying and pleading for a memorial to be put up where the crash occurred.  If the crash had occurred in an affluent part of town, the memorial would probably have been erected within a year.  Here is a link to a slideshow with pictures of the crash: http://www.kansas.com/static/slides/071507tankercrash/

There is a billboard on the Interstate near our home in Missouri that reads: “Tornados are equal opportunity destroyers”.  How true that statement is, not only concerning tornados but any natural disaster.  What I would like to add to that billboard is: “Disaster relief is not always an equal opportunity restorer”.   The inconvenient truth concerning disasters is that media coverage and the influx of relief services are very much dependent on the location of the disaster and the type of people impacted.  Too many times, the potential for publicity and ratings are the determining factors for coverage instead of need.   I am sorry to be so cynical, but I know by experience this is true.

Last March I saw firsthand the devastation caused by the tornado that ripped through Enterprise, Alabama.   Most people remember the story of the wall collapsing at the High School killing many students.  This was truly tragic and was a legitimate national news story.  NO ONE remembers that before the tornado hit the school, it had plowed directly through the “black” depressed part of town.  No one remembers for it NEVER made the news.  I was there; I toured the part of town the local authorities did not want the nation to see.  They did not want people to see for they did not want that part of town rebuilt, for it was “the bad part of town”.  After being threatened with some jail time, I left that city repulsed by the 2007 version of the same old racial discrimination and bias that has plagued the South for years. 

Last April I saw firsthand what happens when a tornado strikes a “politically incorrect” location.  Sitting on the Rio Grande River in southern Texas is Eagle Pass.  It was hit by a tornado in April of this year.  That same evening, Piedras Negras, Mexico (which is across the river from Eagle Pass) was hit even harder.  The Eagle Pass part of the story made national news for  one day and then was forgotten.  The immense damage in Piedras Negras was never reported.  Eagle Pass received a fair amount of assistance from charities and the government.  Piedras Negras received NO HELP, for it was on the wrong side of the river.

People in Eagle Pass, Texas live in houses.  Many are not that nice, but they are buildings none the less.  Houses can be repaired and moved back into after a disaster.  Most, if not all the victims in Eagle Pass received assistance from charities and FEMA.  There is no FEMA in Mexico and the major charities did not go there.  The people in Piedras Negras who were impacted by the tornado lived in “houses” made of cardboard boxes and tarps.  The local government’s response was to bulldoze the area and leave the people to find new “boxes” to live in.

Also in April, a tornado ripped through the small town of Cactus, Texas.  This little town, located in the Texas Panhandle, is dirt poor and has a population that includes many migrant workers.  The damage in Cactus was extensive and on par with that of Piedras Negras.  The extent of assistance was about the same also.  The town was denied FEMA benefits due to not getting paperwork done on time.  No major charity ever went there to my knowledge.  The little town was forsaken due to its location, economic condition and ethnic makeup.  Should disaster response be dictated by these factors or by the need in the area destroyed?

In early May, I visited Greensburg, Kansas where a few days earlier, an F-5 tornado had wiped the town off the map.  Greensburg was a nice western Kansas farming community with very few minorities, a stable tax base and an “all American” image.  It even had a malt shop still in operation.  Why did Greensburg receive unbelievable national attention and Cactus NONE?  Why was Greensburg flooded with every major national disaster relief charity almost immediately, but only a handful ever ventured to Enterprise, Alabama?  I will let you determine the answers to those questions.

A few miles east of Greensburg is a little town called Haviland, Kansas.  This tiny place housed all the relief workers and agencies helping the people.  Parked prominently for all to see was a huge multi-million dollar motor coach from Samaritan’s Purse disaster relief in North Carolina.  It was there because the Director was in town to preach at a service.  The Director is Franklin Graham, Billy’s son.  His yearly salary is $345,293.  I contacted Samaritan’s Purse about helping in Piedras Negras, Mexico and the request was rejected outright.  I am thankful for any assistance any agency gives in times of disaster, but I tire of seeing decisions made based on reasons other than need first and foremost.  

I went to Enterprise.  I went to Eagle Pass, and yes, I went to Greensburg.  In fact I went to Pratt, Kansas also.  Why, because there was a warehouse set up there to handle all the food, water and clothing being sent from all over the country to a place THAT DID NOT NEED IT!!  That’s right; the people of Greensburg were being housed by relatives and friends and had no need for supplies, for they had nowhere to put them.  Yet, due to national media attention, people were sending tons of supplies for a need that did not exist.  Could those supplies have been used in Enterprise, Eagle Pass, Piedras Negras and Cactus?  OF COURSE they could have been used and greatly appreciated.  They never made to those locations because no one knew of the need.

It truly pains me to see where so much of the money goes that people give to charities.  Why the director of a disaster relief charity needs to make more than the President of the United States is beyond me.  I just wish I could do a better job of relaying the need to help the small independent groups instead of dumping more and more money into the huge charities with huge overhead.

I feel badly for the fire victims in California, the disaster there is huge.  But, for the most part the people there will be fine.  All the major news anchors have been out there soliciting help for the people.  Insurance will pay for new homes for most of those who lost theirs in the infernos.  Meanwhile, people are still trying to get back into their homes in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana more than two years after Katrina.  We still deal daily with situations where long ago people “fell through the cracks” and their needs have multiplied ever since the original disaster.  It takes time to rebuild and restore after a disaster.  It takes people and groups willing to stay put and work with people from ground zero until all is resolved. 

Please, never forget the people who suffer through disasters who had the unfortunate distinction of living in the wrong part of town, not having much wealth or God-forbid are Hispanic or African-American.  Disaster relief is not just for the middle class, celebrities or whites.  Disaster relief should be for anyone impacted by a disaster.  Think about this the next time you see an obscure little story buried at the bottom of the news about a place no one ever heard of with people most would reject due to economic or ethnic prejudices.

My little charity, Heart2Heart SHARE is still there, albeit on a more limited scale than before.  My commitment is still the same; that if there is a need and I can figure out how to get there, I will do whatever I can to help.   Please keep the “little guys” in your prayers and help when and where you can.  The large charities will always have plenty of support and resources to do what they do.  It is the small independent groups with UNPAID volunteers who need support to keep doing what they are doing.  Heart2Heart SHARE will continue to search out and help find assistance for unaffiliated independent groups whose very survival depends on individual donors willing to help.  God bless you.

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1 Response to “Disaster Discrimination”


  1. June 26, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    I would like to talk to the who wrote the story on the January 16 plane crash I would like to find out all the information I could on this event due to some upcoming events and information needed for that northeast community that was damaged. Thank you for your attention to this matter. contact information on web-site.


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