Cook: Stealing disaster money

Cook: Stealing disaster money

June 7th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

For stealing the time, personnel and already-thin budgets of our area's most important aid agencies, the owners of Patten Towers ought to be charged with theft.

The electrical fire that forced hundreds to evacuate wasn't a tornado or flood. It wasn't an act of God.

It was a man-made disaster.

That means PK Management, which owns and operates the Towers, should take full financial responsibility for the crisis instead of relying on local agencies -- the Red Cross, Chattanooga Area Food Bank, Goodwill, Metropolitan Ministries, the Salvation Army and multiple others -- to shoulder the burden of fixing a problem they did not start.

Otherwise, it's theft.

"This disaster itself is just over a fourth of my entire disaster budget for the whole year, and we're blowing that in six days," Greg Waite, CEO of the Chattanooga Area Red Cross, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "I'm worried about what else comes throughout the year."

The responsibility for handling this has been laid at the feet of those who had nothing to do with it, like someone coming onto your street, burning your neighbor's house down and then demanding you clean it up.

Our city's agencies should be saving their money for Mother Nature's disasters or using it to hand out boxes of food, pay off water bills or help folks get medicine. Instead, they're spending money -- an estimated $80,000, at least -- mopping up a crisis they didn't create ... and one that may not end for months.

Stories from Towers residents suggest there is far more to be fixed than basement wiring.

"You've got mold all around the walls," Bobby Pitts said of his Towers apartment. "I had mushrooms growing up behind my toilet."

There in his temporary hotel room, someone had brought him cans of Spam, a bag of unshelled peanuts, some tomato soup. He was wearing a yellow T-shirt promoting tourism to Grand Cayman Island; on his wrist, a green bracelet that identified him as a Towers evacuee.

His medicine remains on his dresser, back in the Towers. His prescription, inside the top drawer.

In the hotel hallway, another evacuee stopped to talk.

Does she want to go back to the Towers?

"Hell, no," said Karen Chatman, who says she came from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. "Dope, sex, you can buy everything there. You name it, you can buy it."

On Monday, she, Pitts and other Towers residents were bused into area hotels for a seven-day stay, paid for by PK Management. All week, the question has loomed: where do they go after that?

According to Jeff Cannon, deputy chief of staff for Mayor Andy Berke, PK Management has pledged to continue paying for hotel rooms through next week.

"Everybody in a hotel room, instead of getting kicked out Monday, they now get to stay until Friday," Cannon said.

Yet it is far from over. Legal Aid of Tennessee announced yesterday that its attorneys have begun meeting with residents regarding their rights. An extra few days in a hotel room are probably the least of their concerns.

Earlier this week, PK Management (which did not return calls on Thursday) made a vague news conference promise about donating to the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

"The owner of Patten Towers has a separate foundation," said the PK representative. "He is extremely philanthropic."

This is not about philanthropy.

It's about responsibility.

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