New Orleans The fire that has thus far counted 79 tenants in the Grenfell Tower, a low income housing project in the wealthy West London Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has been described as the “Katrina moment” for British Prime Minister Theresa May for her early ham-fisted handling of the tragedy. Katrina involved a lot of back and forth finger pointing for months with some issues still contentious, but in London the enablers of this tragedy are being quickly identified.
The fire is attributed to an apartment refrigerator provided by a company acquired in 2014 by American brand, Whirpool, that had a plastic backing. In the US refrigerators are sold with a metallic backing to provide more fire resistance. Too many think of refrigerators and “cold” at the same time, but the motors running them are hot obviously where the business machinery of refrigeration is happening. The related culprits identified by fire officials point to poor insulation and aluminum cladding on the outside of the building. The cladding was made by Arconic, an American company that is an outgrowth of the better known Alcoa, the iconic aluminum company. Their stock is down 21% and they have indicated they will no long sell the paneling for use in high-rise structures. Buildings over a certain height in the US are required to have two concrete encased fire exists and fire doors, but not so in Britain. Other cities and countries around the world are reportedly hurriedly reexamining their codes.
Developers and owners have been more successful in pushing back building codes in the UK than in the US, but don’t get the big head and start feeling all safe, because it’s just a matter of degree, and it’s still all about the money. Codes are routinely flaunted making them literally “dead letters” without sufficient enforcement. In dealing with “as is” contracts with the Home Savers Campaign we initially thought that the Toledo, Ohio ordinance that required a certificate of occupancy before a contract could be signed might protect families until we hit the doors in Detroit and found that the same ordinance prevailed there, but was simply not enforced. We met a woman in Pittsburgh who was injured in a Harbour Portfolio property when the stairs collapsed underneath her. A man in Akron in another Harbour property told about his sister, now disabled and unable to work, after a ceiling in the shower collapsed underneath her.
Even knowing the cause doesn’t remove all culpability, which is part of my point about the deadly collusion of the authorities, developers and owners, and lax regulators and enforcers. ACORN organizers have played a supportive role to tenants and tenant organizations in the wake of the Grenfell fire, and have noted similarities to ACORN’s work in New Orleans in post-Katrina. The dispersion and evacuation has made it difficult to reach Grenfell tenants now sheltered all over, just as was the case in Katrina, where ACORN was often the only point of contact for many as a membership organization. There will also be a long debate about unheeded concerns raised by tenants at Grenfell about fire safety before the tragedy just as residents of New Orleans 9th ward had voiced opposition to MR-GO, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, and expansion of the Industrial Canal to hurricane safety.
As organizers, we constantly have to ask whether we should have done more. Building codes are boring, but despite the low value policy makers and politicians put on the purchase of the lives of low and moderate income families, these families, more than anything else, have to be our priority, and the devil is truly in those details, bringing hell and death, when attention is not paid.