Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Somewhere over the Rainbow: A report from a Kansas Mutual Aid member from tornado devastated Greensburg, Kansas
by Dave Strano
On Saturday May 12, four members of Kansas Mutual Aid, a Lawrence based class struggle anarchist collective traveled to the small South Central Kansas town of Greensburg. Our intention was to go as a fact-finding delegation, to report back to the social justice movement in Lawrence on what exactly was happening in the city.
On Friday May 4, 2007 Greensburg was almost completely destroyed by a F5 tornado. 97% of the buildings in the town of 1500 were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Nearly every single resident was left homeless, jobless, and devastated. At least eleven people died in the storm, and hundreds of companion animals, livestock, and wild animals were killed as well.
According to the 2000 census, 97% of the population of Greensburg was white, and the median income of the population was a meager $28,000. The city was and still is comprised of overwhelmingly poor, white working people.
Shortly after the tornado, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took control of the recovery efforts in Greensburg. The United Way became the coordinating organization for relief volunteers but, after orders came from FEMA, halted the flow of volunteers into Greensburg. FEMA demanded that Greensburg needed to be "secured" before the area could be opened to real recovery efforts.
So, as hundreds of recovery volunteers were told to not come to Greensburg by the United Way, hundreds of police from dozens of Kansas jurisdictions were mobilized to enter the city and establish "control."
Reports coming from the recovery effort in Greensburg had been woefully short of information. We made multiple phone calls to the United Way and other aid agencies, and were told repeatedly not to come, that “We don’t need volunteers at this time.” We were told that if we wanted to help, we should just make a financial donation to the Salvation Army or United Way.
With the experiences of Katrina and other major disasters fresh in our collective conscious, we decided to go anyway, to assess the situation and be able to present a better picture to those people in Lawrence that were rightfully concerned about the effectiveness of the relief efforts.
On the night of Friday May 11, in the spirit of offering solidarity to the working class population of Greensburg, members of KMA traveled two hours to Wichita and spent the night there. A mandatory curfew had been imposed on Greensburg, with no one being able to be in the city between 8pm and 8am. So after a nearly sleepless night, we piled into our vegetable oil burning car and made the final two hour drive to Greensburg, careful to not arrive before 8.
Multiple news agencies had reported that because of FEMA, all volunteers were being denied entry at the checkpoints set up outside the city. As we approached the checkpoint, we became really nervous, and tried to make sure we had our story straight.
We were stopped by an armed contingent of Kansas Highway Patrol Officers. We explained that we had come to help with the relief efforts, and after a quick stare and glance into our car, the officer in charge directed us to a red and white tent about half a mile into the town.
It turned out that on Friday the 11th, a week after the tornado destroyed Greensburg, the Americorps organization was finally given permission to establish and coordinate volunteer recovery efforts. Americorps members from St. Louis had set up their base of operations in a large red and white canopy tent that was also being used a meeting place for the residents of the city.
Americorps volunteers proved to be pretty reliable for information, and good contacts to have made while we were down there. Despite the hierarchical and contradictory aims of the national organization, the Americorps people on the ground were the only people really offering any physical recovery aid to the residents of Greensburg.
The four of us from KMA, signed in to the volunteer tent and were given red wristbands that were supposed to identify us as aid workers. We decided not to wait to be assigned a location to work, and instead to travel around the city on foot and meet as many local people as we could.
Our primary goals were numerous. We intended to analyze the situation and assess how our organization could help from Lawrence. If long term physical aid was needed from us, we had to make contacts within the local populace that could offer a place to set up a base camp. We also intended to find out what happened to the prisoners in the county jail during and after the storm, and what the current procedure for those being arrested was. In a highly militarized city, the police and military were the biggest threat to personal safety.
As we traveled further into the ravaged town, it became clear that the photographs I had seen had not done justice to what truly had happened here. All that could be seen was endless devastation in every direction. There wasn’t a single building in this area of the town that had been left standing. The devastation was near complete. Every single house we came across in the first moments we entered the town had completely collapsed. Every single tree was mangled and branchless. Memories of watching post-nuclear warfare movies filled my head as we walked around the city.
This was a post-apocalyptic world. The city was eerily empty for the most part. National Guard troops patrolled in Hummers and trucks. Occasionally, a Red Cross or Salvation Army truck would drive by. Very few residents were there working on their homes.
After a short while, we met with several people evacuating belongings from their home. They told us that FEMA had been there for a week, and that all FEMA could offer them was a packet of information. The packet, however, had to be mailed to the recipients, and they had no mailing address! Their entire house had been destroyed. Their mailbox was probably in the next county. All they were left to do was evacuate what few belongings could be saved from their house, and then pull the non-salvageable belongings and scraps of their house to the curb for the National Guard trash crews to haul away.
No agency in the city besides Americorps was offering to help with the removal of this debris, or the recovery of people’s homes. FEMA’s mission was to safeguard the property of businesses in the area and offer “low interest” loans to property owners affected. The National Guard was on hand along with the local police, to act as the enforcement mechanism for FEMA, while occasionally hauling debris and garbage out of the city.
The only building in the city that FEMA and others were working in or around was the County Courthouse. When we approached this area, we quickly took notice of the giant air-conditioned FEMA tour buses, along with dozens of trailers that were now housing the City Hall, police dispatch centers, and emergency crews.
The media had reported that residents of the city would be receiving FEMA trailers similar to the ones in New Orleans. The only FEMA trailer I saw was being occupied by police.
At this location, we tried to formulate some answers as to what had happened to any prisoners being housed in the county jail during the storm, as well as the fate of the at least seven people that had been arrested since the storm.
Not a single person could offer us a real answer. As of the writing of this article, we are still working to find the answer to that question. We have ascertained that any prisoners that were in Greensburg during the storm were sent to Pratt County Jail immediately after the storm had subsided. However, we still don’t know how many people that accounts for, nor do we know the fate of any arrestees in the week since.
Several of the arrestees after the storm were soldiers from Fort Riley that were sent in to secure the town. They have been accused of “looting” alcohol and cigarettes from a grocery store. The residents I talked to said that they had been told that the soldiers had just returned from Iraq. Is it a wonder that they would want to get drunk the first chance they could? The social reality of this situation was beginning to really set in. The city was in chaos, not because of the storm, but because of FEMA and the police.
In the immediate recovery after the storm, FEMA and local police not only worked to find survivors and the dead, but also any firearms in the city. As you pass by houses in Greensburg, you notice that some are spraypainted with how many weapons were recovered from the home. This is central Kansas, a region with extremely high legal gun ownership. Of the over 350 firearms confiscated by police immediately after the storm, only a third have been returned to their owners. FEMA and the police have systematically disarmed the local population, leaving the firepower squarely in control of the state.
Later in the day we traveled with an Americorps volunteer that turned out to be the sister of one of the members of the Lawrence anti-capitalist movement. She gave us a small driving tour of the rest of the devastation that we hadn’t seen yet, and then deposited us in front of a house of a family that was busy trying to clear out their flooded basement.
Two days of rain had followed the tornado, and with most houses without roofs, anything left inside the house that may have survived the initial storm, was destroyed or at risk of being destroyed. The casualties of the storm weren’t just structures and cars… they were memories and loved ones, in the forms of photographs, highschool yearbooks, family memorabilia and momentos. People’s entire lives had been swept away by the storm.
We joined in the effort to help clear the basement, and listened to the stories of the storm that the family told us. They explained that they had just spent their life savings remodeling the basement, and now it was gone. It had survived just long enough to save them and some neighbors from the storm.
We removed whatever belongings were left in the basement, and sorted the belongings into five piles. The smallest of the piles by far, as the pile of things that were salvageable and worth keeping. The other piles included one for wood debris, one for metal, one for hazardous waste, and another pile for anything else that needed to be removed. From under one of the piles, a scent of rotting flesh wafted through the air. The family was afraid to look and see what may be hidden under the metal.
As we were preparing to leave the work site after clearing the entire basement, we were thanked heartily by the family and their friends. “Next time,” one of them said, “bring fifty more with you.”
Next time we will. It should be obvious to most by now, that the federal, state, and local governments that deal with disasters of this magnitude are not interested in helping the poor or working people that are really impacted. Only through class solidarity from other working people and working together with neighbors and community members will the people of Greensburg be able to survive and rebuild.
Kansas Mutual Aid is in the midst of organizing a more permanent and structured relief effort. We are continuing to make contacts to secure a base camp for our work. We hope to have things organized and solidified by Memorial Day Weekend when we plan to travel back with as many people, tools, and supplies we can take.
Our goals are three fold:
1) To provide direct physical relief support to the residents of Greensburg by being on hand to help salvage their homes, and provide any other physical support they ask of us.
2) To offer solidarity and aid in any future organizing or agitating efforts that will be needed to retain possession of their homes, or to acquire any other physical aid they demand from the government or other agencies.
3) To provide support and protection of human rights during the police and military occupation of the city. We will work to document arrests and ensure that human rights of arrestees are protected.
If you live in Eastern Kansas, or are willing to travel, we need your help and experience. We also need a laundry list of supplies including:
Money for fuel for our vehicles
Respirators and filtered face masks
Headlamps and flashlights (none of the city has power, and there are a lot of basements that will need to be worked in)
Shovels, pickaxes, prybars, crowbars, sledgehammers, and heavy duty rakes
Gloves, boots, goggles, construction helmets and other protective clothing
First Aid supplies
Water and Food (non-perishable) for volunteers heading down
Chainsaws and Gasoline
You and your experience
Please, if you have anything you can offer, or want to help in the relief, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
We will be hosting a presentation on Monday May 21st at the Solidarity Center in downtown Lawrence (1109 Mass Street) at 7pm on our experiences in Greensburg, and on our plans to offer relief in the form of solidarity and mutual aid, and not as charity. Please join us if you can.
There seems like there is much more to say, but with the experience fresh in my mind, it’s hard to keep typing. Action and organization is needed more than a longer essay at this moment. In love and solidarity,
Kansas Mutual Aid member
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
Kansas Mutual Aid Relief Workers forced out of city by police
Saturday May 19, 2007
by Dave Strano
On Saturday May 19, five members and volunteers affiliated with Kansas
Mutual Aid, a Lawrence based class struggle anarchist collective, made
the trek back to Greensburg to again help in relief efforts in the
tornado ravaged city. A week earlier, four KMA members had traveled to
Greensburg on a fact finding mission to assess the situation there. What
KMA members found was a militarized, entirely destroyed city where
relief efforts were moving tragically slow.
Today's trip back to Greensburg by KMA members and volunteers was
intended to solidify the bonds we had created in the first trip, and
establish a base of operations for future relief efforts. KMA spent the
morning working on a house with members of AmeriCorps, and then
proceeded to meet with contacts with the Mennonite Disaster Services.
We then headed out of town to a church just outside of city limits that
we were told would be a place we could probably set up a base camp for
our work. The church had been converted into a fire station by the
state, so we continued down the road and met a farmer who was willing to
work with us and let us use his land.
Soon after meeting the farmer, we were approached by officers with the
Dickinson County Sheriff's Department. After a brief exchange, the
officers left, and we were told to report to the Kiowa County Emergency
Response Command Post to receive official permission to set up our base
of operations. We were notified that if we did not do so, we would risk
having our operation ceased by the state.
Two of our delegation went to the Command Post, while the other three of
us went to the County Courthouse to pick up some water and provisions
being offered by the Red Cross. While we were picking up water and food,
I was approached by an Olathe Police Officer named Ty Moeder who knew my
face and identity. I was ordered to take my hands out of my pockets and
follow the officer to a side street "to avoid making a scene".
I and the other people with me followed the officer, and were repeatedly
ordered to keep our hands out of our pockets, where they could be seen
by the officer. Soon more officers approached, as well as at least one
member of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and some people from FEMA.
Surrounded by agents of the state, we were ordered to produce our
When I asked the police why we were being detained, Officer Moeder
responded "We need to check to see if you are affiliated with the
anarchists." At this moment, our remaining two comrades approached to
see what was happening. They were detained as well, and made to produce
Officer Moeder asked how we had gotten in to the city. "We drove in,"
"They weren't supposed to let you in at the road block," responded
Moeder, seemingly frustrated and perplexed by that answer.
"They even gave us a day pass to drive in and out," we shot back.
A waiting game ensued for the next several minutes, with more officers
approaching, now numbering almost fifteen. A Lawrence police officer
approached, and was ordered to take photos of the car we had driven that
was parked down the street. Officer McNemee from the Lawrence Police
Department took extensive photos of the car, even of the inside contents
of the vehicle.
Officer Moeder ordered me to step away from the rest of the relief
workers and speak with him. "You're being ordered to leave and not
return. This is not negotiable, not appealable. You can't change it. If
you return you'll be arrested on site. And believe me, you don't want to
push that right now. This system is pretty messed up, and you wouldn't
be issued bail. You'd disappear in the system."
I asked repeatedly what we had done and why we were being ordered to
leave the city. "You're part of a dangerous anarchist group that will
only drain our security resources," he responded. "We've been monitoring
your website and e-mails, we know what kind of agenda you have."
"So this is about our political beliefs?" I asked.
"No," he responded. "This is about you being federal security threats.
Kansas Mutual Aid is not welcome in this city, end of story. I know you
are going through legitimate means to work in the city, and you're story
seems picture perfect, but we know who you are, and you're not allowed
We were ordered back into our car and escorted out of the city by
several police vehicles with their lights flashing, and left just
outside the city.
We returned to Lawrence just moments ago, unhindered in our resolve to
provide support to the people in the disaster area. We will continue to
work in whatever capacity we can in the areas around the city that we
may still be allowed into, and provide support to those entering the city.
The area is a police state, to be certain. Police and Law Enforcement
from across Kansas and the country are making the rules about
everything. Relief workers were banned from Greensburg today because of
their political beliefs and work against oppression and tyrannical state
A longer, more in depth update with an announcement for future action
will come soon. Please spread this story far and wide.
In love and solidarity,
Dave Strano, on behalf of KMA