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A red badge of cowardice


Let me preface this by saying that the outpouring of support for the Castle West fire survivors was both noble and heartening; the charity of the community at large gave them a light of hope in their eyes and hearts.

The displaced residents and the first responders are commendable for their courage, endurance and inner strength.

Not everybody with good intentions belongs on the scene of a disaster, however. Some people should just stay at home in the safety of their living rooms and watch it unfold on television.

First response in the face of a disaster should be selfless and fearless, with a firm sense of responsibility (break it down: ability to respond) to your human community.

It should not be a subconscious quest for martyr-glamdom, a visage of Sunday school conformity, or, God forbid, an exercise in rubbernecking. If your motives aren't completely altruistic, you inevitably hesitate or become a hindrance, sometimes with lethal consequences.

I know. I saw it firsthand in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Two people in my neighborhood died when rescue efforts shut down following wildly exaggerated reports of helicopters coming under gunfire. One neighbor, who was wheelchair-bound and needed immediate dialysis, died while waiting for a helicopter that never came. The other elderly gentleman couldn't endure the heat and exhaustion after wading to the Superdome, being turned back and wading home. I was 20 feet away when he was found floating next to his porch.

Other folks let protocol trump productive action, with equally devastating results. While hurricane victims succumbed to heat and stress, those with power refused to deviate from their rules to better work with other agencies.

With this in mind, it's incumbent upon me to point out a few mistakes I saw in the response to the Castle West fire, lest during a larger, more widespread disaster, we duplicate these missteps and foster grave consequences.

First: If someone loses everything he owns, he does not automatically become untrustworthy. It may be a socialized response geared for self-preservation on the streets to use caution around emotionally distressed, homeless strangers but it is an unreasonable socialized response that must be firmly intellectualized away.

When I went to the church next to the Castle West fire to offer rides to displaced residents, two women working for the Red Cross warned me against "giving just anyone rides," citing my own safety. This is unacceptable and ridiculous. It's unlikely that a 70-year-old Korean War veteran with low oxygen levels, diabetes and a mechanical heart valve poses much of a threat to a healthy, grown woman while en route to the hospital.

Life is a risk. If you're scared, stay home. Shall we forgo compassion in the name of safety?

Second: Protocol and paperwork are not as important as pressing medical demands. The aforementioned veteran should not have had to discuss his wish for medical treatment with volunteers for more than two hours. The correct course of action is to provide for survivors' immediate needs. It is not to hesitate over incomplete or duplicate files. It is not to second-guess the person because he seems distressed. It is not to make him wait for oxygen while you argue and secretly balk at your potential liability. Listen more attentively; act more swiftly.

Third: Make sure your team establishes a firm chain of command before you step through the door. The fire department, police and medical personnel (hopefully) already have. If you haven't, you'll waste time discussing things diplomatically, having ego battles and running around like a chicken with your head cut off.

Last: Complete inaction is a poor choice. It puts unnecessary strain on community resources, and is really bad for your karma. So do something to help, no matter how small. And whatever you choose to do, think outside the box. Clothing and canned food are easy to give, so people do; it's difficult, though, to eat that food without a 99-cent can opener. It's difficult to keep those clothes clean without feminine protection or laundry detergent.

If you're compelled to donate, put yourself in victims' shoes and think about what you might want or need. If you don't have 99 cents for the can opener, volunteering an hour of your free time costs even less.

Colorado Springs rallied to a necessary cause, as strong communities do. Now it's time to reflect on how we can all respond even more effectively when challenged by the next disaster.

Ashley Boudreaux is an Independent contributor from New Orleans. She and her family moved to Colorado Springs a year after Katrina, attracted in part by the sense of community here.

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