Disasters of our Age: From Fallujah to Greensburg
By Joe Carr
I spent last Saturday in Greensburg, Kansas, and I can barely describe the devastation I saw there. I wish that I could say I’ve never seen anything like it, but the destruction and official response was hauntingly similar to what I witnessed in Palestine and Iraq during my trips there from 2003-2005.
Greensburg is a small central Kansas town of about 1,400 people. A largely white working class city, the median income is $28,000, leaving almost 20% of the population under the official poverty line. On Friday, May 4th, a 1.7 mile-wide tornado (possibly the largest ever recorded) destroyed or damaged 95% of the city, killing 9 people. Most residents lost everything and have not been able to return.
We called the United Way last week about going down to help, and they told us that they didn’t need any more volunteers and to just send money. Upon further pressing, they admitted that there was a lot of work to do, but they didn’t have a good system for coordinating volunteers. Other news sources were saying that National Guard troops had sealed off the city and no one was being allowed in. We decided to head down there and see for ourselves.
The checkpoint was much easier to get through than any checkpoint I experienced in Iraq or Palestine. But it was new for me to be questioned by armed military personnel in order to enter a US city. The town is very much under military occupation, armored hummers and trucks patrol the streets, along with police from all over the state. Indeed, I saw more police and military vehicles than construction equipment, despite Kansas having over half its machinery and many of its National Guard troops deployed to Iraq. You can bet that if there was a social uprising in a US city, the National Guard would be sent in full force to repress it like we saw in the 60’s and 70’s. But when people actually need help, our troops and equipment are busy terrorizing and destabilizing Iraq.
Entering a Greensburg neighborhood was overwhelming. Absolute destruction in all directions as far as the eye can see. It brought me right back to Fallujah, Iraq, which I visited with the Christian Peacemaker Teams in May of 2005. US Troops destroyed 70% of that city of 150,000. However, I witnessed more people rebuilding in Fallujah than in Greensburg, despite a much more serious military occupation and severe restrictions on importing building materials in Fallujah. There were hardly any Greensburg homeowners out cleaning up their property, and government agencies seemed only focused on repairing government buildings or policing the streets.
Though we had trouble getting information or guidance on how to volunteer, we were followed around by an Overland Park police vehicle for over an hour. They were quite blatant about it, driving close behind us at every turn, and slowly following us as we walked. We learned later that there are ten Lawrence cops in Greensburg who likely recognized us from our political activity and took the opportunity to try and intimidate us.
Government officials finally addressed the residents of Greensburg at a large town meeting held last Friday, May 11th, under a large tent on the edge of town. Citizens were told that they would be fully responsible for cleaning up their property and hauling away the rubble. Aid will largely come in the form of 2.785% loans from the Small Business Administration (SBA), but will be based on the applicant’s ability to pay. Citizens will still be required to pay property tax on their destroyed lot; the city is only waving the interest and other fees. FEMA is offering a maximum of $28,200 to eligible residents, and it is clear that much of the poor and uninsured will largely be left with nothing.
One man I spoke to, an uninsured renter, said he lost everything and is left only with debt. We passed by a destroyed grocery store, and I asked him if people had tried to get food in the aftermath of the storm. “I’m not a looter” he said vehemently. Surprised, I commented that trying to get food in a time like that is hardly looting. “There wasn’t time to get food”, he said, “We had to pull people out of the rubble, and…. I lost a friend.”
We spent a few hours hauling damaged property out of one family’s home. They were actually one of the luckier ones. They lost everything, but had full-cost insurance and will qualify for an SBA loan. Their roof was ripped off and most the walls were destroyed. The basement (recently remodeled for $20,000) was then flooded in the following downpour and now reeks of mildew. The older couple survived the storm in that basement, along with four other neighbors who didn’t have basements. They’d lived in the house for 32 years, and were hoping to leave it to their children. As we hauled out everything from their basement, I imagined trying to clean everything out my parent’s basement and what a project that would be. At first this family had pretty much decided they would abandon the lot and live out the rest of their lives else ware, but after the town meeting they’re considering staying.
Stories of determination to return and rebuild were everywhere. Some people who’d planned to move away before the storm, have now decided that they’re going to band with the rest of the community and help re-create their city. It reminds me very much of the determination of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, also echoed by the survivors of Hurricane Katrina from New Orleans. All of these refugees have the right to return to their homes, and we will continue working to make that possible.
Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebilius has vowed to make the city a “Green City”, using environmentally friendly building designs, though largely limited to increased insulation and more efficient heating and cooling systems. This idea reminds me of the real cause of these national disasters. Scientists say that the recent intensification of these storms can be linked to the global climate change caused by excessive CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were related to this, as was the recent flooding in Missouri that damaged at least 570 homes. Unless there is a drastic shift in US environmental and energy policy, these storms will only get worse.
The official response will continue to be militarization and political game-playing. Our government’s actions in the Middle East make it clear that their priorities are more death and destruction, not less. The abandonment and criminalization of Katrina survivors, the attacks on victims of our immigration policy disaster, and the growing crisis in our prison-industrial complex remind us that those living on American soil will also be targets.
It’s up to grassroots movements to bring change. We must continue to resist US war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and US support for Israeli colonization of Palestine. We must continue to develop models to support the survivors of environmental policy disasters, such as the Common Ground collective coordinating relief work in New Orleans. www.commonground.com
The Kansas Mutual Aid collective based in Lawrence, KS, will be helping coordinate grassroots relief efforts in Greensburg. Please contact us if you would like to volunteer, help organize a group of volunteers, or donate equipment or supplies: email@example.com
We will be doing a presentation on what we saw in Greensburg and discussing ways to get involved on Monday, May 21st at 7pm at the Solidarity Center, 1109 Massachusetts in Lawrence, KS.
Our next big trip will be Memorial Day Weekend, May 26-28th. We have a school bus for transportation and will arrange for accommodations.
Please get involved now to support your fellow Midwesterners, you never know when you’re going to need it.
In solidarity-Joe Carr
Kansas Mutual Aid