Chattanooga's Patten Towers refugees won't be returning soon (with video, slideshow)

Chattanooga's Patten Towers refugees won't be returning soon (with video, slideshow)

June 5th, 2013 by Ellis Smith in Local Regional News

POLL: Should Patten Towers be closed?

Edna Branford fumbled with the handle of her dishwasher on Tuesday, craning her neck to find the latch.

On her next try she found the right spot, pressing up with her blue-painted fingernails while also pulling the door out toward herself. But after stealing a quick peek inside, she self-consciously closed the door.

"I don't even know how to use it," she admitted.

She isn't in a hurry to learn how to use the dishwasher. She won't be here long enough to get the hang of it.

Branford's temporary home at the Staybridge Suites is good for six more days. After that, no one knows what will happen to her, or to the 240 other displaced residents of Patten Towers who were forced to flee an electrical fire on May 28.

Washing her dishes by hand will be a happy distraction from the nagging uncertainty surrounding the future.

The Patten Towers residents now are spread out among 11 area hotels, ranging from nice to nasty. The Staybridge, across the street from the Chattanooga Convention Center, is on the nice end of the spectrum.

Others, like the Country Hearth Suites, are protected by barbed wire and patrolled by beefy security guards, complete with black T-shirts announcing their occupation. Vendors hawk bootleg CDs at the Kanku's across the street, and hotel guests with nothing to do stand at the corner and stare at passing cars.

Compared to Patten Towers, Branford's room at the Staybridge is modern, quiet and clean. After living in the emergency Red Cross shelter at the Brainerd Recreational Complex for nearly a week, this is pure paradise.

At the Staybridge, which was renovated earlier this year, there are no guards blocking the front door. The fire department doesn't show up every day. Everything works.

Jamie Lewis directs Patten Towers residents to their assigned buses Monday at the Brainerd Recreation Complex.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

An upscale lobby includes a lounge area, big-screen TVs and Internet access. Friendly staff, a full complimentary breakfast and free Wi-Fi make it a great destination for business travelers and refugees alike.

"A lot of people don't want to go back to Patten Towers," Branford said.

Her hotel room, about the same size as her darkened apartment at Patten Towers, is stylishly furnished, clean and even comes with dishes.

But in six days, she worries that she and her gray kitten, Brownie, will be back in another emergency shelter.

At that point, Chattanooga's hotels will be packed to the brim with out-of-town visitors to the Riverbend festival, one of the Scenic City's biggest events of the year. Those visitors, who booked their rooms months before the Patten Towers fire, will be arriving soon. And the refugees will have to go somewhere else.

As the clock ticks down, no one yet knows where that somewhere else will be.

A spokeswoman for PK Management, the company that owns Patten Towers, did not respond to requests Tuesday for comment. The company previously has said it was seeking a "temporary fix" that would allow residents back into the building within a week, rather than the estimated 6-8 weeks that it will take to build an entirely new electrical system for the 100-year-old former hotel.

But the city won't allow residents back into a building held together with duct tape and dreams.

"As [Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke] stated, the building must be safe before anyone moves back in," said Lacie Stone, director of communications for the city of Chattanooga. "At this time, I'm not sure there is an intermediate fix that would make the building safe."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which augments residents' rent through its Section 8 program, is struggling to find a solution to the ongoing crisis.

The only proposed solution is to place residents into apartments other than Patten Towers, said Joe Phillips, a spokesman for HUD.

In essence, PK Management could pass on its tenants -- and HUD subsidy -- to other landlords while it repairs what city inspectors say are a raft of problems with the aging building.

The problems include:

• Careless maintenance exposed the structural steel in the basement's concrete columns. High temperatures, such as those that occurred during the basement's electrical fire, can degrade exposed steel.

Jeffery Cannon, center, looks on Monday as Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks to Patten Towers resident Kim Owens, left.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

• The main electricity control panel has been improperly altered and must be replaced, along with the wires destroyed in the fire.

• Room ducts are filled with rat feces and dirt, and the building is improperly ventilated.

• Three boilers were installed with no record of a permit, fire equipment has been altered without a permit and many emergency power circuits aren't working.

• The building has only partial sprinkler coverage on the first floor and hallways, and some sprinkler heads have been painted.

• Emergency lights and exit signs must be repaired or added.

In a letter hand-delivered to PK Management, Gary Hilbert, director of the city's Land Development Office, warned the company against making optimistic plans.

"Because the Land Development Office is required to protect the health, safety and welfare of the general public, the City of Chattanooga will not allow the building to be occupied by anyone except the managerial staff, security, engineers and contractors who are working to solve these issues until all of the repairs are completed and inspected by the Land Developmenet Office," Hilbert wrote.

Patten Towers resident Willie Williams is ready for the next step, whatever that may be. If he had his way, he'd prefer to live in a duplex, he said Tuesday.

"I don't know what they're gonna do," said Williams, who lives on a monthly Social Security disability payment.

But he's making the best of a confusing situation. After washing off the smell of the emergency shelter and getting a good night's sleep for the first time in a week, he went shopping and picked up a small orange backpack with yellow flames on the back with which to hold his valuables. He also bought a cane to take the place of his wheelchair, which is still stuck within the shuttered Patten Towers building.

Today, he's going to go buy some new clothes.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.