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Kansas Tornado: Americans Need Help

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    Kansas Mutual Aid is helping with disaster relief in the wake of the devastating and colossal tornado that hit Greensburg, Kansas. The town has been simply
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 4, 2007
      Kansas Mutual Aid is helping with disaster relief in the wake of the
      devastating and colossal tornado that hit Greensburg, Kansas. The town
      has been simply obliterated. Read KMA member Dave Strano's report below.

      Somewhere over the Rainbow:
      Kansas Mutual Aid, Greensburg, Kansas
      by Dave Strano - kansasmutualaid @ hotmail.com

      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

      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

      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

      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 carsÂ… 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
      Portable generators
      You and your experience

      Please, if you have anything you can offer, or want
      to help in the relief, e-mail us at kansasmutualaid @ hotmail.com

      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,
      Dave Strano
      Kansas Mutual Aid member
      Lawrence, Kansas



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