Labor Advocate Online

Some Recollections of Disasters Past
by Bill Onasch

Though I was only eight at the time it was a Friday the Thirteenth I will never forget. My mother was quite agitated that morning in July, 1951, after receiving a phone call from my dad. He reported that his employer, Armour, the name sake for the area we lived in, was sending everyone home early. The reason given for this unusual early quit was that the Corps of Engineers were predicting that dikes along the Kaw and Missouri rivers would likely soon fail. He instructed her to quickly gather essential papers, me, and the canary, and be ready to go as soon as he could get home.

Fortunately, in anticipation of a vacation scheduled to start the next day, but subsequently delayed, my mother already had some clothes packed. We were able to make it to my grand parent’s more elevated residence on the Missouri side of the metro area a few hours before the dikes started collapsing. The Armourdale, Argentine, Fairfax, and West Bottoms districts of Kansas City, Kansas were engulfed by flooding waters that had earlier hit Topeka and Lawrence hard as well.

We were among some 20,000 "evacuees," mainly families of packinghouse, soap plant and rail workers, living in the flooded areas. Because of the Corps’ timely warnings, relayed by radio and new-fangeled television--and the operation of streetcars to accommodate the many with no access to a car, until the last bridge was closed--only ten human lives were lost in this catastrophe.

Thousands of animals perished, however, mostly in what was then the second-largest stockyard in America. They were waiting an imminent, though perhaps more humane demise in four huge packinghouses submerged nearby. Other major employers flooded included a GM assembly plant, Owen-Corning Fiberglass, Sunshine Biscuit, a Phillips refinery, Colgate and Proctor & Gamble soap plants, and the second-biggest concentration of rail yards in the country.

Only through truly heroic efforts by city workers–supplemented by many courageous volunteers–was the Quindaro utility complex, providing water and electricity to 150,000 homes, saved by picks and shovels. Similar efforts kept Municipal Airport dry.

The national guard was sent in in the midst of evacuation. Unlike in New Orleans, they did not come in locked and loaded, pointing weapons at anyone they encountered. They were there mainly to help get people out of harm’s way–though they did apprehend a couple of lads caught boosting a live pig from Bichelmeyer’s meat market.

Sunday morning we joined thousands of others on Quality Hill bluff where a panoramic view of the disaster was available. My mother then issued a rare, non-negotiable ultimatum to my dad–we would never move back to their life-long home town of KCK but would remain on "high ground" on the Missouri side. In at least that one instance she got her way.

There was no FEMA, no MARC in 1951.Nor, unfortunately, was there an EPA. But construction companies and the building trades unions immediately established a nonprofit cooperative, called Disaster Corps, Inc. Over several days the organization donated some 16,000 man-hours and the use of 375 pieces of equipment, providing the necessary preconditions for recovery.

Their first objective was to be ready for the annual American Royal Show that Fall–and they were. The fact that the sitting President, Harry Truman, was from the Kansas City area probably didn’t hurt in getting some government dollars for rebuilding--and a lot of money for enormous flood control projects. But mainly it was the strategic importance of Kansas City industries at the time that motivated the capitalists to invest capital in the massive clean up and rebuilding effort that inspired Norman Rockwell’s illustration "The Kansas City Spirit."

The corporations rebounded quickly, without much sacrifice. The same could not be said for the "evacuees" or thousands of others whose place of employment were shut down for weeks, sometimes many months. Many of those were, like tens of thousands in New Orleans today, living from paycheck to paycheck. When the checks stop at the same time you become homeless then disaster is compounded.

As they always do, the American Red Cross issued an urgent appeal for funds to help the flood victims. Also as they always do, the American people responded generously with many millions of dollars. Unfortunately, also typically, little of this Red Cross money found its way to the truly needy.

My dad, who was a strong believer in the principle of solidarity, had long been a regular contributor of both cash and blood donations to the Red Cross. Now that we had lost our house, along with all the furniture, appliances, clothes, and other possessions within it, (not to mention my valued toy collection, including a much cherished Lionel train set received just the previous Christmas) he figured it was his turn to ask for help.

Within a few weeks a nice lady from the Red Cross showed up at the tiny attic apartment that we had just moved in to that was to be our home for the next few years. Beaming, she disclosed to us that she had negotiated with Montgomery Ward for my dad to receive a 500 dollar line of credit.

Clearly, she was unprepared for the stony silence that initially greeted this joyous announcement. Somewhat flustered she went on to assure us that purchases on this credit line were without restriction–we could buy anything we wanted.

That’s when the Old Man let her have it. He told her that he didn’t need her help to get a line of credit at Ward’s; he was pretty sure he could get the same at Sears as well. While renouncing this generous offer, he went on to instruct her to inform her superiors not to expect another nickle or another pint of blood from him at any time in the future. He also courteously warned her about the danger of the door hitting her in the backside on the way out.

Over the years I’ve had additional first-hand experiences with the Red Cross–the 1957 tornado that killed dozens in Kansas City and wrecked my high school; being informed by the U.S. Army during the induction process that I would donate to the Red Cross; a serious, though less severe than 1951, flood in Kansas City in 1993. They were everywhere–selling coffee and doughnuts to selfless community volunteers. Carrying on the family tradition, this scam run by politicians and brass hats has never got a voluntary nickle out of me.

Bad as the ‘51 flood was I don’t suggest for a moment it was comparable to the disaster inflicted by Katrina. Whereas only a relatively small residential part of Kansas City was flooded most of New Orleans was submerged. We lost ten people–the count in New Orleans may ultimately be a thousand times greater. Our temporary homeless were largely soon relocated in the metro area, still close to families, friends, steadily increasing reemployment. Untold numbers of "evacuees" from the Crescent City are taking shelter in unfamiliar places, uncertain about what the future holds in store.

Today’s victims suffer more also because of the continuing degeneration of our social, economic, and political system. In 1951 the government was expected to step up to the plate in times of disaster. Now we’re told to give money to the Red Cross or Pat Robertson. In 1951 soldiers pitched in to help. Today, instead of the first words from rescuers being "you need help, neighbor?" they hear the command "lock and load!" Emergency response is subordinate in every way to "homeland security."

A lot of people are demanding to know "who’s the blame"? Well, it’s not just Bush or his appointees. All those not part of the solution are part of the blame. In words even they should be able to understand, "it’s the system, stupid."

That’s why we are not only sad but also angry. That’s why we not only try to help the victims of Katrina in whatever ways we can but are also determined to fundamentally change a society that treats our own so shabbily.