Wednesday, March 24, 2010

'Tis the Season... for Texas Twisters

Day 36 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Ten years ago this coming Sunday, towards the end of the evening rush hour, a tornadic system tore through Fort Worth and Arlington, Texas, killing two people and causing half a billion dollars of damage.

One skyscraper in downtown Fort Worth received such extensive damage its owners nearly tore it down before deciding to convert it from offices into luxury apartments. Destruction along portions of the city’s aging West Seventh Street area resulted in a brand-new neighborhood between Fort Worth’s world-class cultural district and its popular downtown.

Lying due east of Fort Worth, the city of Arlington received a second tornado that skipped around two neighborhoods south of the bustling I-20 corridor. For hours into the night, eight lanes of traffic sat still in darkness as downed power lines laced the freeway.

When daylight arrived, the full scope of destruction could be seen, from the spooky pock-marked towers of downtown Fort Worth to the mangled mess of suburban homes ripped apart just a few blocks from where I live.

Two days later, I joined some co-workers on a workday to help clean up the rubble here in Arlington. The city had already made one pass through the affected neighborhoods, making sure everybody had been accounted for, utilities were safely shut off, and emergency vehicles could get through. But the amount of destruction represented too momentous a chore for each family to accomplish by themselves, so volunteers were enlisted to help remove debris and even assist homeowners with personal tasks like recovering furniture and cookware.

I’m not sure I’d want a bunch of strangers poking around my home, even if they were just there to help. But with the shock of what had happened and the sheer magnitude of rebuilding they were facing, I guess most homeowners figured what more did they have to lose?

After my experiences of that day, I wrote an op-ed piece for our local newspaper (you remember, those thin paper bundles whose ink got all over your fingers?) Ten years ago, newspapers were still the main distribution method for local news.

As we near the tenth anniversary of the 2000 tornado, I thought maybe another look at the article might be appropriate – even as I watch the clouds thicken and darken on this humid afternoon, with strong storms in the forecast for this evening.

Did Class Come Into Play in Post-Tornado Arlington?
Originally printed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram - April 10, 2000

Were you as stunned as I was to learn about the tornadoes that tore through southeast Arlington? Things like that don’t happen here. Traffic jams at Krispy Kreme happen in Arlington; major natural disasters happen someplace else.

By now we all know that natural disasters do happen here. The March 28 tornado could have been worse, but it was bad enough. Although our own taste of tornadic weather wreaked havoc upon plenty of Arlington families, it also provided an excellent laboratory for studying and improving our preparedness and response for the next disaster that the skies may have in store.

In that spirit, I’d like to comment on the response to this disaster rendered by the city and various other organizations. I participated as a volunteer in two economically distinct neighborhoods flanking Matlock Road, and the disparities in public and private assistance between the two neighborhoods were clear.

On the morning of March 30, armed with lawn tools and a power saw, some co-workers and I trudged into what looked like a war zone. In reality, it was what was left of the upper-middle-class Chasemore Lane neighborhood. Chunks of roofs had been ripped away, windows blown out, vehicles tossed around like toys, and fences ripped from the ground.

The city’s presence amid all this destruction appeared impressive – dump trucks, bulldozers and other equipment created a cacophony of commotion. Police were everywhere: on foot, motorcycles, and in squad cars. In fact, we had to go through three checkpoints to get in, and every vehicle had to have a color-coded permit. The Red Cross staffed two vans offering hot food, but we opted to have lunch at the abundantly stocked table set up by Farmers Insurance.

After lunch, I returned to my regular job while my volunteer co-workers went to work on Embercrest Drive, west of Matlock. A couple of hours later, I was called back to help a family being forced to leave their condemned home. They needed someone to drive them to Mission Arlington.

When I turned onto their street, it was like a different world from the Chasemore neighborhood. Embercrest Drive presented a scene of nearly complete devastation. The homes there are much smaller and more densely spaced than those in the Chasemore neighborhood, which probably accounted for some of the visual disarray. They’re also less expensive, and probably not as well insured.

I saw at least two homes with nothing more standing than a few interior walls. Debris was everywhere; I could barely see the ground.

Among all this destruction, I saw many volunteers, including roving bands of Mormon teenagers who made quick work of whatever project they encountered. TV and radio crews seemed to be everywhere. A co-worker of mine said he’d been interviewed three times just that afternoon.

What amazed me more than the destruction, though, was the apparent lack of city personnel along Embercrest. I did find one city worker putting out bins of ice and bottled water, and occasionally a police car would cruise down the street, but there were no security checkpoints to discourage looting, and curious rubber-neckers clogged the street.

A lone Red Cross truck had hungry volunteers waiting in a long line among stacks of debris waiting to be carted away. Although insurance agents were swarming over the Chasemore neighborhood, not one could be seen along Embercrest. I also learned later that some upscale restaurants set up hospitality tables along Chasemore Lane, but we never saw them on Embercrest.

This is Arlington’s first major tornado disaster, so a considerable amount of leniency should be extended for the inequitable response to these two disparate neighborhoods. Resources may have been limited, and initial volunteer efforts may have been disorganized. And I suppose it’s only fair for restaurants to promote themselves where a larger percentage of their customer base resides.

Still, it’s troubling to see people – despite their concern – disproportionately skew their otherwise noble efforts toward the wealthier side of the tracks.

The outpouring of concern and assistance from people across the Metroplex has been encouraging to see. Still, shades of class distinction have shadowed even the best of intentions.

Let’s take the opportunity to not only review and improve our strategies for response, assessment, and protection, but also to remember that economic class cannot be even a subconscious criterion for meting out sorely needed resources. We’re all residents of Arlington, and we all deserve equitable support from the municipal employees, private companies, and volunteers who make this city a great place to live for all of us.

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