‘I’m not too old to build another house’

Posted Monday, May. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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W.R. “Bo” Bohannan’s home is barely standing.

His home, built in 1961, is so structurally unsound that it is no longer safe for him to go inside. One wall of bricks has been turned into a pile of rubble. Many of the ceilings have collapsed and his carport is temporarily supported by makeshift wooden beams.

What’s left of his house sits two blocks from the site of West Fertilizer Co. explosion, which destroyed just about every home around him.

Across the street is the West Rest Home, which will also have to be demolished. Most of his neighborhood is now empty.

But Bohannan, 85, isn’t ready to pack up and move away.

“I’m going to rebuild,” Bohannan said. “I’ve already got three bids to demolish the place. I’m not too old to build another house.”

But Bohannan and other residents know that they are just at the beginning of a long, arduous process.

With an estimated 350 homes damaged —170 severely — in the deadly April 17 explosion, West must first knock homes down before it can put them back up.

Last week, one of the first homes was being demolished, several hundred yards from the blast site. Chunks of concrete and tin from the plant sat in the yard and there was still a strong odor of fertilizer amid the debris.

“It’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” said West Mayor Tommy Muska. “Everyone we’ve talked to has told us that. As much as you would like to say you can rush this, you can’t.”

Looking at other disaster areas

For now, businesses in town are busy with contractors and Federal Emergency Management Agency workers. On a recent weekday, a line of workers could be seen waiting to get into the Czech-American Restaurant in downtown West.

Other restaurants are also getting all of the customers they can handle.

“Right now, business is still really good,” said Brian Anderson, who runs the Pizza House and Gerik’s Ole Czech Smokehouse in West.

But that economic momentum is likely to stop at some point.

The city will have to deal with a reduced tax base at the same time it needs to come up with funds to clear debris, Muska said. FEMA will pick up 75 percent of the debris-removal costs, but West will be on the hook for the rest.

Damage estimates from the West explosion should reach at least $100 million, the Insurance Council of Texas has reported.

West officials are looking at recovery efforts in other cities that had major disasters, such as Galveston, where Hurricane Ike struck in 2008, and Bastrop, where wildfires in 2011 destroyed 1,696 homes.

Bastrop County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Fisher, who spent nine days in West after the explosion, said there is an ebb and flow to rebuilding.

“Right now, what’s going on is you’ve got hundreds of people doing things, cutting lumber in their yards and putting tarps on their roofs,” Fisher said. “What we saw was the sales taxes for the first quarter after the wildfires went up 25 percent, which is a good thing for the community.

“But what we found after everybody goes home is that there is going to be an economic down-dip when an emotional and economic uptick is what everyone so desperately wants.”

Every resident’s circumstances are unique, Fisher said. Some will have insurance while some will be underinsured or have no insurance at all.

All of those factors make it difficult to move some rebuilding projects along.

“In our case, we had 1,700 homes destroyed and those were 1,700 individual cases,” Fisher said. “There was no single program to move all of those projects along.”

‘They don’t want handouts’

Like Bastrop, West has formed a local organization, the West Long-Term Recovery Committee, to help residents navigate public and private resources.

Karen Bernsen, a Realtor, is the interim executive director. She visited Bastrop last week to study what private sources people there found to help rebuild.

For now, Bernsen said, the main goal is educating residents about what is available.

“The most important thing people need to do is register with FEMA,” Bernsen said. “But we’re getting a lot of resistance. They don’t want handouts. They don’t want government in their business.

“But we have been telling them that it is their money. It is paid by tax dollars and it is just our turn to access those dollars. It is also crucial to register to be eligible for other programs down the road.”

Private donations have already generated more than than $2 million through various funds, said Ashley Allison, executive director of the Waco Foundation, which is administering the West, Texas, Disaster Relief Fund, which has more than $500,000 in donations.

Officials are still determining the best way to administer the funds fairly to West residents. But if they distribute private funds too early, residents could be precluded from receiving any federal assistance, Allison said.

“We don’t want to eliminate them from being eligible for federal programs,” Allison said.

‘I’ve got plenty of time’

Even with the impressive totals already raised, officials say more will be needed.

In Bastrop, between 800 and 900 homes have been rebuilt as the two-year anniversary of the wildfires approaches. That shows it takes time to rebuild, Fisher said.

Bohannan, the 85-year-old who vows to rebuild, knows it won’t happen overnight.

But he’s willing to be patient because he considers himself lucky to be alive. Fifteen people were killed and more than 200 injured in the explosion.

As the fire raged at the fertilizer plant, Bohannan’s wife went back inside to get her purse.

Then the explosion occurred, knocking Bohannan to the ground as shards of glass flew all around him. Except for a small scratch on his arm he was unharmed. His wife made it out of the house safely.

He now lives in the KOA campground on the edge of West, driving over daily to check on his property.

“For somebody my age to get out unharmed is a bit of a miracle, so I can wait,” Bohannan said. “If it takes a while to get my home back, that’s fine.

“The way I look at it is I’ve got plenty of time.”

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna

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