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Don't judge victims too quickly

City Sage

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Colorado fire forces 32,000 from their homes ... Thousands flee Colorado Springs wildfire ... More than 30,000 evacuated in Colorado fire.

Such were the headlines that screamed at readers throughout the country. Whether you got your news from the New York Times, Huffington Post or Facebook, you knew what to expect after the headline.

There were interviews with terrified residents, crying children clinging to their parents, and disturbing videos showing flames leaping into the sky as refugees fled the Waldo Canyon Fire in cars to an unknown future.

One narrative was missing: Hurricane Katrina's sad tale of hastily improvised shelters, where thousands of suddenly homeless folks sought refuge.

Of the 32,000 evacuees, all but a tiny fraction found shelter with friends, with relatives or at hotels. This quick and efficient dispersal owes much to our city's collective character, and even more to the convergent technologies of social media and smartphones.

My experience was typical. We hosted our friend Cindi and her teacup Chihuahua, evacuated from Mountain Shadows. (Side note: How can a 4-pound Chihuahua adapt to sharing quarters with a 100-pound Chesapeake Bay Retriever? Just yap fearlessly and make the big dog move over!) A day later, areas close to our house were on pre-evac. No problem — relatives in Denver volunteered to take all of us.

There's another factor in play, though. Most evacuees had cars, liquid assets and local roots. They didn't have to rely upon public resources.

You'd think the community would applaud them for their self-reliant thrift, but that hasn't been universally true. Speaking of the most visible fire victims, who lost their homes and possessions, one woman expressed the sentiments that many apparently share but are reluctant to express.

"Why are we raising money for rich people?" she asked. "I'm sorry for them, they lost their houses and all their stuff, but it's not as if they can't buy more stuff and build a new house. They're insured! Those houses were worth a half-million at least."

OK, let's be clear. We're not raising money for rich people. We're raising money for organizations such as Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, the Pikes Peak Red Cross, the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region and other nonprofits that must be ready to mobilize resources in an emergency. We're raising money to help those who may be in need, regardless of their previous circumstances. We're raising money so that we'll be prepared for the next emergency, the next flood, the next fire.

And who are these rich people that we shouldn't be bailing out? Are they really so rich?

In 1981, fleeing the crime and chaos of Miami, I moved back to Colorado Springs, my hometown. We had two small children, modest savings and no jobs. We rented a home in Rockrimmon, found employment, and were able to buy a house on the same cul de sac a year later. We paid $130,000, putting $10,000 down and assuming a loan for the balance. It was idyllic — affordable, quiet, safe and convenient. Dogs and kids ran free, the elementary school was across the street, and our neighbors were amiable and unpretentious. Among them: two real estate brokers, an engineer, a contractor, a public school teacher, and a symphony violinist. No one was rich.

Mountain Shadows, first developed in the early 1980s, catered to the same market. Like Rockrimmon, it was a family-friendly suburb in the foothills. It appealed to young professionals, especially those employed in the nascent high-tech corridor along Garden of the Gods Road.

Today it's a settled, aging community. Many who lost their homes had lived in them since the 1980s. Some are retired, living on fixed incomes. Others have bounced from job to job, saved what they could, and refinanced their homes to make ends meet. With luck, they've put away enough to finance a modest retirement.

I know that some are struggling. They're grateful for community support, but would neither demand nor accept a handout. They'll rebuild, downsize, rent or move in with their kids — but they don't want charity.

They're not rich. They only want what any of us would want, to wake up one morning and find that it was just a bad dream.

It wasn't — and only memory remains. Et in Arcadia ego.

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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