published Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

Emptying of Brainerd shelter forces look ahead for Patten Towers residents (with video, slideshow)

Patten Towers residents moved to hotels
After spending nearly a week at the Brainerd Recreational Center, Patten Towers residents were moved to local hotels Monday. A fire disabled the electrical system in the low-income housing complex on Tuesday, May 28. PK Management, the owner of Patten Towers, said they will provide the hotel rooms for one week, in hopes that the building will be operational after that time.

BY THE NUMBERS

12,300: meals served

11,000: bulk items distributed (towels, blankets, pillows, etc)

722: total of overnight stays

600: medical appointments

160: outfits given out by Goodwill

150: mental health appointments

2: cats treated

HOW TO HELP

Visit the Red Cross online at RedCross.org

Contact the Salvation Army at 1-800-Sal-Army or go to CSArmy.org

Letter to PK Management
Letter to PK Management

Clutching clear plastic bags that contained all the possessions they could carry, the residents of Patten Towers waited in clusters under a hastily erected Red Cross tent. It was time to evacuate.

They were careful not to lose the wristbands that identified them as actual residents of Patten Towers, rather than any one of an unknowable number of hangers-on and transients who loitered among the refugees from a Tuesday night electrical fire.

"Everyone must have a form of ID to be assessed," shouted a PK Management official above the din of residents left behind in the Brainerd Recreational Complex.

For the sick, disabled and elderly evacuees outside, the square scrap of paper with a letter written on it entitled them to board the bus that would take them away.

Away from standing in line for lunch from a truck. Away from sleeping on a military-style cot in a Brainerd basketball gym with 100 other people. Away from the nagging uncertainty of not knowing what tomorrow holds, how to get medicine or when this nightmare will end.

The residents weren't told where they'd be going. They couldn't immediately tell friends, family and others where to reach them. Those who weren't on the list were turned away. Some of the girlfriends, grandmothers and drifters who form part of the larger Patten Towers community but don't pay rent got into cars to follow the buses. The convoys drafted the buses through red lights and down Interstate 24, tracking them all the way to the downtown hotels that will serve as temporary homes for the next few days.

Initially, 241 residents fled the Tuesday night fire. Many found a couch or an extra bed in the home of a friend or family member for what they thought would be just a few days. Just over 100 remained stuck at the Brainerd Recreational Complex overnight on Sunday, including a group that was moved there from the East Brainerd Church of Christ.

But the news that residents would receive vouchers for hotels brought dozens streaming back into the shelter for a chance at a golden ticket, creating a logistical nightmare.

Contradictory and confusing lists of names left many residents frustrated, waiting in lines that went nowhere as workers from PK Management struggled to understand who would be allowed to board a CARTA bus to the La Quinta Inn or the Staybridge Suites.

Some residents' ID cards remained behind in Patten Towers. Those residents waited while workers figured out how to identify them.

Dotsay Poole pumped her fist when her name was called and leapt to her feet to grab the piece of paper that represented a seven-day vacation from the noise and smell of an emergency shelter. As the gym slowly emptied, Red Cross workers pulled the cots out a rear door, brushed off the crumbs and lined them up in the grass out back. The cots will need to be disinfected before they can be used again. Workers will throw away the piles of emergency towels and blankets that were scattered across the building. It costs more to wash them than it does to simply replace them.

At a cost of more than $80,000 in donated funds, workers from the Salvation Army and Red Cross served more than 12,000 meals during the week, supplied 11,000 blankets and towels, conducted more than 600 medical checkups and treated two cats.

A team from Oak Street Baptist Church brought a trailer filled with laundry machines to wash clothes. Goodwill Chattanooga distributed two outfits of clothes to each resident. Hamilton County and Chattanooga police officers split up security duties.

Response

Despite the catastrophic conditions on the ground, PK Management's corporate officials were slow to act, drawing the ire of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke over the weekend. As the crisis dragged on for a sixth day, it became the longest and largest humanitarian disaster in Chattanooga since Hurricane Katrina.

"I find it deplorable and unacceptable that we are still waiting on executives from PK Management to arrive on the scene this many days after the incident occurred," Berke wrote in a letter on Sunday.

PK Management executives came armed with a number of reasons why their response appeared tardy. The weather, for instance.

Poll
Should Patten Towers be closed?

"The weather has been an issue getting folks on the ground," said Joyce Walker, community relations manager, in response to questions about the company's conduct. PK Management officials soon ended the news conference in response to further questions, and refused to speak with reporters afterward.

But their weather excuse doesn't hold water. Other than a thunderstorm Sunday, the weather in Chattanooga has been some of the best of the year so far, with temperatures in the 70s and 80s and some scattered clouds, according to The Weather Channel.

The weather in Cleveland, Ohio, from whence PK Management Vice President Jenee McClain-Bankhead arrived, was temperate and dry every day last week except for a thunderstorm on Friday. Greenville, S.C., home to PK Management's headquarters, experienced a beautiful week as temperatures hovered in the 70s and 80s, save for an afternoon thunderstorm Sunday.

"They're trying to save face, but they're going to write us off," said Scotty Baker, who was waiting his turn to be "assessed" by PK Management officials. "I've been here every day, and they haven't showed up."

McClain-Bankhead is the third PK Management official to visit the shelter in as many news conferences.

Frustration

Later, Berke explained his frustration with management company officials, who told reporters they did not receive his letter that was faxed to their office Sunday.

"I made it clear to PK Management over the weekend that it was unacceptable to have this shelter to continue to operate," Berke said, after touring the emergency shelter on its final day in operation. "It is unsurprising that my patience wore thin."

Yet in spite of Berke's hands-on involvement, answers to basic questions remained elusive Monday.

The cause of the blaze was an electrical fire in the basement, but officials haven't revealed what started the electrical fire. They may never know, said Jeff Cannon, the mayor's deputy chief of staff.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which regulates Patten Towers, has yet to respond to questions about its role in the living conditions there. Officials said they will have answers today.

Records show that six companies of firefighters from three stations have been called to the complex nearly every single day for the last three years to address issues from minor fires and stuck elevators to assisting residents with personal issues. Yet a fire occurred in the midst of these daily visits, and an inspection after Tuesday's fire revealed a raft of problems that workers must fix to make the building habitable again.

Among them:

• 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.

• 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 and added.

A fix to the electrical system is expected to take up to two months, though PK Management hopes to have a temporary fix complete within a week. If they don't get the electricity up and running or find alternative housing for 241 people, residents could be in trouble.

Chattanooga's biggest festival of the year, Riverbend, begins on Friday, and many of the rooms that residents are staying in today already are booked for the festival, which runs through June 15.

Neither PK Management nor Chattanooga officials know what will happen after residents' seven-day hotel stay expires.

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

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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