The Lehigh Valley's charitable impulse ran so strongly in the weeks after Allentown's deadly gas explosion, it surprised even some veterans of disaster relief.
"This particular disaster touched the community in a way I've never seen before," said Cordelia Miller, emergency services director for the American Red Cross of the Greater Lehigh Valley. She spoke at a Monday news conference in Allentown, where officials revealed the final tally of relief donations -- $185,549.11 -- and how the money had been distributed to 35 families affected by the Feb. 9 blast.
Using a formula of need devised after scores of victim interviews, the managers of the Allentown Family Fund gave checks ranging from $500 to $23,700 to meet the needs of families who lost something -- a front door, a few windows -- to absolutely everything.
Eight homes were leveled in the blast and ensuing fire at 13th and Allen streets and five people died: William and Beatrice Hall of 544 N. 13th St. and three members of a family in the adjacent row home, Ofelia Ben, Katherine Cruz and 4-month-old Matthew Vega.
Community and corporate response was swift and strong. UGI Corp., the company responsible for the gas main implicated in the blast, gave no-strings donations of $20,000 each to the families that lost their homes, then donated $25,000 in seed money to start the family fund.
Scores of other donations -- from $5 individual gifts to $500 from a Daisy Troop pancake breakfast to $10,000 from a local church -- bolstered the fund, which was overseen by the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley and the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley.
Initial checks totaling about $31,000 were mailed last month.
"The community isn't responsible for rebuilding our lives, but they sure have helped," said Jill Arroyo, who lost her home and belongings to the fire.
Her husband, Antonio, said he and his wife "have been beaten down to the ground by tragedy, but we were picked up by generosity and a lot of love through the community."
Two CACLV volunteers, Sandra Potter and Linda Kirner, spent weeks interviewing the survivors, who were widely scattered to new homes in Whitehall Township, Quakertown and other communities.
The women studied relief response from other disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, in devising a questionnaire to evaluate need.
In the end, they sorted the survivors into three tiers, according to the scale and impact of their losses and the risk factors -- income, disability, language barriers -- that might impede recovery.
"We think we did as fair a job as we could do, as objectively as we could," Potter said.
About $17,000 of the total was set aside for counseling services, which will be provided through the nonprofit Family Answers of Allentown. Executive Director William Vogler said his agency would meet with survivors at the six-month and one-year marks to see how they are faring and help them navigate the mental health system if they need help.
Vogler said anyone passing through the neighborhood now would have no idea the catastrophe had occurred, because the damaged properties had been leveled and the debris cleared away.
"If the emotional effects were so easy to clean up, I wouldn't be standing here today," he said.
Survivor William Epler said the reminders are overwhelming every time he sets foot outside, choking up as he recalled life before the blast.
"I hope those homes will be rebuilt," he said. "I hope the people that lived in that neighborhood will come back. We had a great neighborhood."
WHERE RELIEF CAME FROM
Breakdown of the $185,550 donated to the Allentown Family Fund:
*$25,000 from UGI
*$34,545 from 10 other corporations
*$9,290 from 145 individuals
*$32,285 from churches and civic groups
*$32,000 from UGI employees
*$52,430 from KNBT collection
Source: United Way/CACLV
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