Cook: First to fall, last to get up

Cook: First to fall, last to get up

June 4th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

We take pride in what we do. - Joyce Walker, PK Management

The dying woman sat quietly, both feet flat on the Brainerd Recreation Center floor. She wore a pink blouse and pink pants and clutched a pink purse that did not belong to her. That's it: the clothes on her back, and a borrowed purse.

When she began to cry, the tears were a thin line in her eyes, as if even tears were in short supply. She turns 58 soon. Doctors don't expect her to live to see Christmas. She's supposed to start chemotherapy this week. Tomorrow, actually.

Monday afternoon, she had no idea where she was going to sleep that night.

"Just pray for me,'' said Patricia Pickett, a Patten Towers evacuee.

She was sitting inside the recreation center, where, since last week, hundreds of our city's most unfortunate have been sleeping side by side on green cots and covering up with gray blankets used during natural disasters. Residents of Patten Towers, they were forced to flee their high-rise, high-poverty building last week after a basement fire.

Yes, they need prayers. And answers.

Who allowed the Patten Towers wiring to fall into such dangerous shape?

How long has PK Management, which owns the Towers, known about the condition of the wiring?

How many other structural problems are present within the building?

PK Management promised seven days of hotel rooms for its residents. What happens after seven days?

"You tell me," said Becky Whelchel, director of Metropolitan Ministries.

Since the evacuation, local agencies -- Metropolitan Ministries, the Red Cross, East Brainerd Church of Christ, the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Team, Salvation Army and others -- have responded in the same way they would had a tornado struck or terrorist attacked.

But these folks are among our city's most troubled: the first to fall, the last to get up.

"This is like a worst-case scenario of what you would have in a disaster," said Susan Jackson, health service nurse manager with the local Red Cross.

Towers residents have a long list of needs: insulin. Oxygen tanks that only hold four hours worth of oxygen. Dialysis. Hospital beds. Chargers for wheelchairs. Medicine ... for epilepsy, cancer, mental health, spasms, seizures, leg pain and on and on and on.

"Just to name a few," Jackson said.

PK Management is headquartered in Greenville, S.C., fewer than 300 miles away. Five hours, by car.

Yet it took days and days for any real leadership to arrive in Chattanooga.

"Eighty-four hours," Jackson said.

Multiple residents at the rec center praised the city's response. Jeff Cannon, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Andy Berke, was there day and night since the evacuation.

"I love him for that," said resident David Elliott. "They're not going to take no wooden nickels [from PK]. They're going to keep holding their feet to the fire."

The days to come are more crucial than ever.

Will PK maintain responsibility for its residents and building?

Who's going to help the local agencies -- already stretched thin -- who are now charged with providing teams of care (social workers, mental health professionals, nurses) to hundreds of displaced residents?

Will Patten Towers remain as downtown housing for poor people?

Just before residents lined up for a bus ride to their seven-day motel stay, Bobby Pitts sat near the back of the rec center, holding a half-smoked cigarette between his fingers.

"I'm hurting now, but I'm holding my composure," he said.

Then, he cracked. Heavy, angry tears began to fall down his cheeks as he spoke about not having his medicine, or getting to a doctor, or who would help his friends in wheelchairs get to the bathroom at night.

"How you supposed to feel?," he said. "I'm tired of this [expletive]."

He wiped and wiped and wiped his eyes. But the tears kept coming.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.