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Thankful for community spirit

Posted: November 25, 2012 - 1:00am

The recent fire at the Gastineau Apartments in downtown Juneau was a stark reminder of the fragility of life, and how grateful we should be for every day, especially those when we’re not subject to misfortune. It was shocking early on the Monday evening before Election Day to hear sirens blaring as firefighters from far and near converged on the intersection of Franklin & Front Streets to battle the capital city’s largest fire since the immolation of the Endicott Building many years ago. Those not downtown at the time saw photos online or text messages, and even such small images conveyed that a serious conflagration was underway.

The Gastineau Apartment fire could have been much worse had the response not been so prompt, possibly spreading to one, if not many, other buildings. Juneau is quite fortunate that its firefighters are well-trained and did such a thorough job. Still, the entire population of the subject building, some 50 people residing in over 40 units, has been misplaced indefinitely. While no people died, a firefighter was injured, and a pet cat was killed in the blaze. Thanks can be given that no human life expired, but the loss of a place to live and personal possessions by these victims is tremendous to each of them. Think what it would mean suddenly no longer to have your clothes, books, photos, computer, and other accoutrements of daily existence. It is a loss that goes beyond cost of replacement, which is nevertheless its own formidable barrier to getting on with one’s life.

The Juneau community has acted admirably to shield these friends and neighbors from the fallout of this tragic inferno. The Red Cross set up a disaster-relief shelter at Centennial Hall as soon as practicable, giving people (and their pets) a place to go to sleep as well as easy access to a variety of different service organizations. While some Gastineau renters were able to move in with family or friends, this option was not available to all. Fortunately the Juneau Housing Assistance Program, St Vincent de Paul, and other agencies have worked to get people housed so that no one becomes homeless. Others have pitched in to help former residents move their belongings out of the Gastineau Apartments, and in other ways adjust to this catastrophic development. Fundraisers have been held to generate cash to provide direct assistance to victims, including a movie marathon at Rockwell, the new restaurant in the Old Elks Lodge immediately adjacent to the Gastineau Apartments.

The Red Cross in Juneau is both collecting money for, and dispensing financial assistance to, those who need it from the Gastineau Apartments fire. Thousands of dollars have been raised and distributed, with care given to the particular needs of recipients, such as number of children, ability to find alternative housing, and medical situations. If you would like to contribute to this worthy cause, it’s as easy as sending a check to the American Red Cross of Alaska at 3225 Hospital Drive (Juneau 99801), with an indication the funds are for these particular fire victims. Non-monetary donations of clothes, blankets, towels, appliances, toys, and non-perishable food are also being gathered at Juneau’s Salvation Army Post at 439 West Willoughby Street near Gold Creek downtown.

While the Gastineau Apartment fire won’t be quickly forgotten for most of us, the problems it has created for the Juneauites directly affected will be around for a long time. Our entire community’s continued support will be needed, and knowing Juneau, will be forthcoming. Other critical needs in our community are more chronic than acute, and persist across the seasons, year-to-year. Families in need of assistance in feeding themselves have access to federal and state programs, but one of the most direct ways to access critical sustenance is from the Southeast Alaska Food Bank. This organization stood ready to help address the Gastineau fire situation, but is also there every day of the year for a wider population in need, and also is great institution to support.

It really makes one appreciate life a little more knowing that you lives in a community like Alaska’s capital city that not only provides a high quality of life, but also takes care of those who face dire circumstances, whether they be relatively momentary or of harsher duration.

• Brown serves as Chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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