Response to WFMZ – A Look Back at the Allentown Gas Explosion

Last night on WFMZ’s show “Business Matters,” Mayor Ed Pawlowski, Susan Gilmore of the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, Edward Morrison of the Old Allentown Preservation Association, and Neighborhood Activist Diane Krauss joined host Tony Iannelli for a reflection on the tragic Allentown gas explosion. 

Topics of conversation – as described by WFMZ’s Business Matters Blog – included “the state of our infrastructure in the Lehigh Valley, the emotional toll of the explosion, the incredible sense of community that developed in the aftermath of the tragedy and the struggles faced by aid agencies in delivering aid in the most equitable and expeditious manner possible.” During this show, the collection and distribution of funds by the United Way and its partner agencies, including CACLV, were not only questioned, but accused of being completely ineffective.

There is currently no system in place to deal with a local tragedy of this magnitude.  The agencies that stepped forward to figure out a way to quickly and fairly distribute the funds that were collected over the weeks following the explosion have done so in order to see that it is done right.  Local residents and businesses have collectively contributed approximately $150,000 to the Allentown Family Fund, which is an incredible display of support. It is our responsibility to see that those funds meet as many of the survivors’ needs as possible.

During the show, Mayor Pawlowski says, “I know the United Way is doing the best they can to collect this money and make sure they distribute it in an effective and organized manner. They would get criticized if they didn’t do that.”

Below are responses to the Business Matters Blog coverage of the show from our Executive Director Alan Jennings and Sandi Potter, one of the volunteers who has worked tirelessly to meet with and assess the needs of every person affected by the explosion.

 

“It took a couple weeks for folks to realize the limitations of the Red Cross in extending aid to victims of disasters beyond a few days. United Way then announced an effort to raise funds with seed money from UGI. Their focus would be services, such as much-needed post-traumatic stress counseling, not direct assistance, ie actual financial relief. A few companies stepped up to fill the huge gap that exists following the Red Cross’s departure from the situation and preferring direct assistance as opposed to services. KNBT, of course, set up an account for people to support the victims. Air Products and TD Bank wanted to help but didn’t have an entity to handle the assistance. They approached us because they have worked with us and know we are pretty competent at what we do.

We have no background in disaster relief but were willing to step up. On February 23 a press conference was held announcing the fundraising effort and our role. I stretch this agency’s capacity to its limits, so we really have no excess capacity. So I recruited two super-talented people from my church (First Presbyterian Church of Allentown) to handle the heavy lifting with support from the staff at the Sixth Street Shelter, a program of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley. The two volunteers, Sandi Potter and Linda Kirner, each have something like 25 years experience as project managers, 18 of which were with Air Products.

They soon affirmed that there is no infrastructure for this type of assistance. So, they created one, leaning heavily on the Katrina disaster and other incidents. They then set about the task of interviewing every single victim who could be identified.

Here’s the problem: we had to understand each victim’s circumstances in the context of each others’. This is the only way to distribute the funding fairly. That took time, since tracking people down was a challenge. Sandi and Linda have been, simply, heroic in their work. They have been working full-time at this and impressed everyone involved (although the victims, understandably, are frustrated). Because of the quality of their work, KNBT funds were added to the United Way pot.

I’m surprised by the comments of the survivors on tonight’s show who said they have received nothing, because we did make a preliminary distribution on March 16, sending checks ranging from $500 to $5,000 to victims. This week we will distribute the remaining amount, which will exceed another $100,000. We expect to brief the press on Monday, April 4, around 1 PM. Residents of the neighborhood are welcome to attend.There is so much more to this story. However, some of the stories, those of the victims, will never be told, due to client confidentiality. If we had hastily distributed the funds, then some would undoubtedly have gotten assistance that others might have deserved more. That would have angered donors and recipients alike.

We were, as is the United Way, in a thankless position, surely setting ourselves up for attack, as viewers witnessed tonight. But I am confident this was done right.

When the funds from this disaster are all paid out in the next few days, someone should get the various stakeholders together and take what we have learned and what we have created and institutionalize it so that, when the inevitable next tragedy occurs, this community is better prepared. Frankly, our agency is not a disaster relief organization but we will step up to that challenge.

To each of the victims, our hearts are heavy and it is the compassion that flows from those heavy hearts that lead us to play a role nobody else was playing. To the many people, companies and civic groups that poured their resources into helping people they have never met, you are among the reasons the Lehigh Valley is a great place to live, work and play. To those who will villify the people who did the right thing with nothing to be gained but criticism, please take just a minute to think about why anyone would step up to try to do right when their only reward is to be attacked.”

Alan L. Jennings, Executive Director
Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley

“I am one of the volunteers working with United Way and CACLV to disperse the Allentown Family Fund in a just and accountible manner. We have made initial payments to families with highest unmet needs (That happened Mar 16th) and are finalizing the final phase payments to go out later this week. As mentioned on the interviews on TV show today, the families that lost their homes were all given $20,000 immediately by UGI with no strings attached. So they have had that money accessible almost from the date of the disaster to help them meet their immediate needs, which are admittedly many. Because UGI stepped up so quickly to help families, we have been able to take a couple weeks to interview the families and make sure that we divide the funds from the Allentown Family Fund in a manner that meets most needs possible. The 35 families who had homes with damage, 8 of which were destroyed , are all included in our response. It may also help to bound the discussion to know that to date the Allentown Family Fund has raised approximately $150,000 in total.” – Sandi Potter

2 Comments

  1. Bernie O'Hare

    You were not attacked. Some of the victims complained they had received nothing. But I understand this is an unusual situation. I appreciate this response, and will link to it on my blog.

  2. Alan Jennings

    They attacked the United Way; by extension, since we’re the ones administering the fund, the attack was on us. I have complete faith in the quality of the work done by amazing volunteers Sandi Potter and Linda Karner.

    The fact is that the victims who appeared on the show to complain that they haven’t yet gotten a payment had gotten a check for $20,000 from UGI and another $5,000 each from us, with more to come.

    It doesn’t help anyone in our field when someone presents themselves poorly.

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