Two flags, tattered by an explosion blocks away, have flown at half-staff at the Emergency Medical Services station since shortly after a fertilizer mixing operation blew up April 17, 2013, devastating this quiet central Texas town and killing 15.
The dead included three out-of-town men attending a course at the EMS facility, who then joined local volunteer firefighters to fight the blaze.
Tommy Muska, the ruddy-faced mayor of this traditional Czech community, teared up and went off-message about West’s efforts to rebuild as his 1990 Ford pickup edged toward the frayed, faded American and Lone Star flags.
“Look at that. That’s pretty much how many of us feel — beat up but still flying.” said Muska, an insurance agent whose father was also the town’s mayor. He was thrust into the headline-snaring disaster, followed by months of delicate dealings with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state agencies, lawyers, myriad reporters, aid agencies and 2,800 shaken residents.
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In fits and starts, and sometimes punctuated by raw emotion, the town of West is on the mend.
Residential streets in the district closest to the blast at West Fertilizer are crowded with trucks delivering bricks, rock and roofing material. A few homes, like that of a town doctor, are still boarded up. But new construction has given the streets the appearance of a suburban subdivision busily being pieced together by teams of workers.
The city has received $3.2 million in state funds and will get $1.3 million in project reimbursements from FEMA. West expects to end up with new infrastructure, from sewers and streets to a rebuilt park. Muska is hoping to lasso $4.4 million more from the state.
After a methodical if slow start, West’s nonprofit Long-Term Recovery Center has disbursed $1.6 million and will have exhausted its remaining $2 million by June or July. Then it will try to raise an additional $500,000 for more building materials, said its new executive director, Suzanne Hack.
The Volunteer Fire Department, which lost five members in the explosion, has received new donated vehicles to replace the three firetrucks that were destroyed.
The Catholic Church’s Austin Diocese, through the St. Vincent de Paul Society, distributed 219 “house in a box” units that included basic furniture and household items that a family might have lost in the blast. In all, it has spent $1.6 million on various relief efforts, from covering drug prescriptions to providing temporary housing, spokeswoman Christina Gonzalez said. An additional $553,812 remains to be used in West.
Companies seeking new sites for factories still bypass West, but residents point to the large new truck stop and retail store, Slovacek’s, on the west side of I-35, owned by a Czech sausage maker from Snook. And, Muska crows, the city’s sales tax receipts were up 13 percent in February, the most recent tally available.
Muska knew he hit a nerve when he publicly suggested that a fertilizer mixing plant, needed to supply local farmers, might be rebuilt nearby. Waco area TV stations repeated the story over several news cycles after the mayor spoke at a town meeting in late March.
If one is ever built, it will be made of concrete and steel — not using rickety, 50-year-old wooden bins — with the ammonium nitrate stored in thick-walled bunkers, the mayor later asserted. The chemical, stored in huge quantities just outside the city, was responsible for the destruction and loss of life.
“It’s going to be a hard sell,” Muska told the Star-Telegram. “It’s hard for some people, harder for some. It’s hard for me. They were upset I ever brought it up. I was just putting my toe in the water.”
‘OK, let’s go’
An outsider in this tightly woven community has become the face of renewal in some of the hardest-hit and poorest neighborhoods.
Since January, John Raimer has toiled as construction chief for the Long-Term Recovery Center, which has spearheaded home rebuilding and repair for people with no insurance or not enough. The nonprofit, a unit of the West Foundation, has become a lightning rod of frustration and criticism, which likely led to the resignation in November of its first director.
At 54, Raimer, a goateed Floridian, is something of an itinerant do-gooder, having given up his electrical engineering job with the municipal electric company in Gainesville. He had an epiphany of sorts during disaster duty several years ago in Louisiana. He called his company to say he had found his life’s calling and told them to get his retirement papers ready.
Since then, he has done hands-on relief work after hurricanes elsewhere in Louisiana, in Alabama and New Jersey. In Alabama, Raimer learned that a group of motorcyclists would do it their way, no matter what he might have instructed.
He recalls how he ended up in Central Texas. A student at Gainesville’s Santa Fe College who was active in his church said last year, “John, I think we need to go and help people in West.”
“OK, let’s go,” Raimer told the woman, Kathryn.
“It’s that easy?”
Unpaid and living in a camper with a 21-year-old caged cockatiel named Twinkie, Raimer said, he got support from his Methodist church back home, which assisted with the $2,000 cost of moving his mobile household in January. His camper sits on the front lawn of the Knights of Columbus Hall, which charges him no rent; the recovery center covers his gas money, and his pension covers food and birdseed.
The center has helped people including Eleanor Castro, 78, a retired hotel housekeeper jolted by the explosion while in the shower. “I was scared,” she recalled. “I had no idea what was happening.”
The explosion cracked her walls and made the floors uneven. The center hired a firm to jack up the foundation to level the floors, and on a recent Tuesday, Juan Garcia of Waco, a drywall hanger turned Lutheran minister, was filling cracks on a bedroom wall with his adult son, Juan Antonio Garcia Perez.
“What do you need?” Raimer asks. “MONEY!” Garcia jokes, then tells him more wall “mud” was required.
Workers still needed
Free goes a long way in West.
A group from Prairie Grove Christian Church in Oklahoma and one from Community Christian Church of Durant, Okla, which had worked together before, sent 60 volunteers in late March.
In 2 1/2 days, they framed a house at 1340 Marable St., affixed exterior walls, covered them with weatherproof sheeting, added a roof and roughed out the electrical. As a result, the 1,500-square-foot home will be built for $50 a square foot, instead of $100 through contractors, Raimer estimated.
Raimer depends on uncompensated labor for much of the home rebuilding except for such things as laying cement slabs and foundation repair. As a result, work is often timed for spring breaks and summer vacations when troupes of church-related groups materialize in West and put hammer to timber.
Late last month, Raimer said at a staff meeting at the recovery center that 3,000 work-hours were exerted on construction and repairs.
But, he went on in his low-key manner: “I need eight times that every week. I hope by summertime we get an explosion of people.” To which another participant admonished, “Don’t use that word, explosion.”
“We need an influx of people,” Raimer then said.
One problem, people at a recovery center meeting were told, are holdouts — people in need but still refusing to accept a helping hand, either from pride or belief that others in their community have it worse.
“Other people need it more than I do,” one woman was quoted as saying.
The recovery center has been the subject of complaints for being slow off the mark. But its leadership emphasizes that many in the community apparently misunderstood its mission and that other cities took as long to start rebuilding after a major disaster.
The center’s first director, Karen Bernsen, resigned in December citing a desire to spend more time with her family and real estate business. The move followed a piece she wrote in the town weekly, The West News, in which she said the attitude of some “ungrateful” residents was “jeopardizing their recovery.” More than a few people were incensed.
‘We were the fall guys’
At the Best Donuts & Kolache Shop on Oak Street, a table full of longtime friends who grew up in town and stayed, or returned decades later, meet every Wednesday morning for coffee and doughnuts made by the Cambodian-born owner. Together they mull issues of the day. Post-explosion developments are common fodder.
Jeanette Holocek, who lost her home and found a 400-pound piece of a forklift tossed onto her front lawn, complained about the fertilizer plant, part of which her husband helped build. “No one ever told people here there was a danger,” she said.
“I knew the plant was there,” Sandra O’Connor said. “You smelled it from time to time. It was part of West and you accepted it — like passing trains blocking ambulances. So I guess we were the fall guys.”
All had an opinion on the relief effort and millions of dollars donated for victims.
James “Piggy” Clark, 80, who was raised in West and moved back a couple of years ago as he was winding down his Houston-based law practice, praised the rapid response by church-related agencies but had little good to say about what the recovery center did in 2013. Clark’s destroyed home was fully insured, and so he received no outside help — except a $350 check that a Missouri woman sent him after seeing him interviewed on TV in ill-fitting clothes after the explosion when he found refuge in a trailer park.
“There’s been a 100 percent improvement in attitude since Suzanne Hack took over the Long-Term Recovery Center,” said Clark, who retired in late March.
Both Hack and her predecessor said they’ve tried to explain with varying degrees of success that Internal Revenue Service rules require a 501(c)3 nonprofit group to provide only unmet needs.
“Each family has to be documented,” Hack said. A good number of residents like Clark believed that everyone affected by the blast should receive help and not be counted out because they were responsible enough to have bought homeowners insurance.
“I was bombarded when I got here,” said Hack, a Baylor law school grad who took over on Feb. 1. “A lot of wonderful things were done, but no one knew about it.”
While the churches handed out $50 gift cards for stores like Home Depot with few questions asked, it took the recovery center months to get nonprofit status, which came in July. It had to draw up plans, hire staff and determine whether prospective recipients had enough assets to help themselves. Moreover, its mission was different from immediate relief that the churches and other groups provided, Hack said.
“When I hear grumbling, I tell people, ‘Get in your car and go to the north side of town,’ ” said Charles Medec, president of PointWest Bank, where a victims fund collected more than $1 million, all of which was handed over to the recovery center. The bank has a history of helping out. It traces its roots to 1893 when the town’s founder, general store owner T.M. West, had the only safe in town and allowed locals to store their valuables in it.
“Good things are happening,” Medec asserted. “If they are critical about anything, it’s their own fault.”
‘It’s been very disappointing’
West’s schools found it got speedier help from a nearby district and others as far away as Justin than from its own insurance company, which had sold the school district $59 million worth of coverage. Trident Insurance, a unit of the Bermuda-based Argo Group, has offered to cover 56 percent of what Superintendent Marty Crawford says is $53 million worth of destruction and damage. That includes the immediate flattening of the intermediate school and the condemnation of the 1999 high school as structurally unsound.
“Our insurance negotiations have stalled and plateaued at $30 million,” Crawford said in early April.
The nearby Connally district, whose Cadets are traditional football rivals of the West Trojans, rapidly readied classrooms in a mothballed school building so junior and senior high students could finish the 2012-13 school year. They even repainted rooms in West’s red and white school colors, Crawford said, marveling. The Mansfield, Grand Prairie and Justin districts pitched in with about two dozen portable classrooms.
“It’s been 12 months of insurance negotiations,” Crawford said of the impasse. “It’s been very disappointing.” Dave Gleason, the San Antonio negotiator for Trident, did not respond to two messages seeking comment. Trident disputes what the district’s engineers say is the condition of school buildings.
Complicating the picture is the fact that the Argo agent who sold the policy is the mayor.
“Tommy has to straddle both sides of the fence,” Crawford said.
Muska addresses the dispute, which puts him in a highly awkward position, this way: “I think the differences they have is that the school deems the buildings can’t be repaired and are a total loss. And the insurance company feels they can be ‘repaired.’ ”
Then the school decided, regardless of the insurance company’s position, to demolish the high school and rebuild, the mayor added.
In February, the district received a $20 million grant from FEMA.
“FEMA’s commitment is to cover the cost of construction after insurance proceeds,” said Crawford, who conceded that $30 million from Argo “would take us close to whole.” But the West schools want to keep the shortfall “as low as possible as we are stewards of public dollars. After all, FEMA dollars are American, Texan, and McLennan County-generated dollars.”
Crawford hopes to start a $55 million rebuilding project in July.
A symbolic move forward for West was the groundbreaking in early April for a new nursing home, West Rest Haven, to replace a single-story, 145-bed facility that was destroyed.
A $5 million insurance settlement won’t cover the cost of a 120-bed unit with a radiology lab and an outpatient physical therapy unit, both open to the community, said Robby Payne, a member of the for-profit home’s board and a local funeral director. Payne, a volunteer firefighter who was knocked unconscious and injured while battling the fertilizer blaze, said loans will cover the construction shortfall.
Unlike the city, the school district and about 200 other claimants, Payne said, the nursing home will not be party to lawsuits against West Fertilizer, two suppliers and a chemical broker.
‘It’s uncharted ground’
West Fertilizer, owned by an elderly local businessman named Donald Adair, had only a $1 million insurance policy. CF Industries, or Interchem, a major manufacturer of ammonium nitrate, has deeper pockets. Another maker, Eldorado Chemical of Oklahoma City, had also supplied some of the explosive fertilizer component, which was custom -lended by the mixing plant to meet soil requirements of individual farms.
The city’s attorney in its lawsuit against the companies, Steve Harrison of Waco, says he will argue that the suppliers and broker had responsibility for “blindly” shipping explosive chemicals to a mixing facility located close to homes and schools. Moreover, CF and El Dorado could have taken steps to coat or process the ammonium nitrate, sold under the Amtrate and Eldor-7 brands, to prevent it from detonating, he said. Such measures exist and are economical, the suit argues. As for West Fertilizer, the company was negligent in handling the chemical, the suit alleges.
The challenge for the city and the other plaintiffs, divided into three groups for separate trials beginning in January, is to prove responsibility on the part of the suppliers to West Fertilizer. CF, in response to the city’s first petition, issued a flat denial of all allegations.
Harrison said the suppliers should have instructed West Fertilizer on the safe handling required for ammonium nitrate and should have used known technology to produce a safer alternative.
“It’s uncharted ground,” he said. “But we believe there is a case to be made here.”