Red Cross, West leaders plan for long-term relief

Volunteers work at the Best Western Czech Inn where goods were gathered for victims of the West fertilizer plant disaster on Thursday, April 18, 2013.   Travis Taylor | Photo Editor
Volunteers work at the Best Western Czech Inn where goods were gathered for victims of the West fertilizer plant disaster on Thursday, April 18, 2013.
Travis Taylor | Photo Editor
By Rebecca Fiedler
Staff Writer

The American Red Cross has allocated $295,000 to long-term relief in West, five months after a fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 people. The Red Cross announced this gift on its website on Friday.

Those who work closely with recovery in West say the city is still in need, though opinions differ as to which areas of need are most pressing.

The money the Red Cross is giving comes from donors all over the country, said Bristel Bowen, regional director of communications for the Central Texas region of the American Red Cross.

Some donors specified that they wanted their financial gift to go to West and some just gave money to the general Red Cross disaster fund.

To try and determine the areas of need in West, the Red Cross works closely with other organizations in the recovery process to prevent the duplication of anything already being provided, she said.

Bowen said the Red Cross wants to put a renewed focus on long-term disaster relief.

“We want to stay involved throughout the entire disaster cycle, which includes recovery,” Bowen said. “Then we want to kind of stay in the community until we’ve seen them through recovery.”

The Red Cross website states funding will be used for property clean-up, crisis counseling, replacement of household appliances, demolition of damaged structures and a program termed “Wisdom of West.”

The program will provide senior citizens with regularly scheduled meetings where they can gather together and socialize. There will be a team of volunteers present at these gatherings to record the life stories of the attendees, preserving the seniors’ descriptions of what it was like to grow up in West.

Kevin Harrison, lead pastor at Victorious Life Church, has been working with West Long Term Recovery, a nonprofit organization dedicated to coordinating organizations, programs and relief donations in response to the explosion.

Harrison said he believes home appliances are not the most pressing need, as many residents have already received home appliances, but said crisis counseling is very much needed, and that he is in strong support of it.

“A lot of people are still just coming out of the trauma right now,” Harrison said. “They really haven’t dealt with the emotional side of it, because they’ve been so frustrated with trying to deal with getting money from FEMA or trying to work out something with their insurance, so there is a huge need for crisis counseling right now.”

Harrison said young people in West continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Loud noises, doors closing hard – kids are still having nightmares,” Harrison said. “They’re still afraid that they’re going to die. They’re asking their parents, ‘Am I going to die?’”

West Mayor Tommy Muska agrees West is in need of crisis counseling, and that counseling is a valuable part of long term recovery.

“They need somebody to talk to,” Muska said. “They have gone through a tragic and upsetting time in their lives, and the more help that we can get to help them talk to some counselors and help understand their feelings and their frustrations and so forth would be more than welcome.”

Harrison said the West Long Term Recovery office needs stability, meaning more funding and consistency of workers in the office.

“Everybody thinks FEMA’s just going to give them a big lump sum of money, but that’s not how it works,” Harrison said. “FEMA will reimburse them, but what has to happen is they have to spend the money. They have to have the money to spend to get the reimbursement from FEMA.”

Harrison said he expects West to receive the money needed at some point, but there are still problems.

“Quite honestly, the city of West is never going to be the same, just because there are so many people who aren’t going to rebuild there,” Harrison said.

Harrison said many people do not have the money to rebuild and in West, including the schools, needs funding.

Muska said most of the demolition has already been taken care of through organizations such as Baylor, the Church of Christ and other Baptist organizations.

He said there are many houses being built and once they are complete, home appliances will be a need.

Ronnie Holmes is a resident of West and is the senior pastor of Church of the Open Door, which has been offering relief to those affected by the April explosion.

“There seems to be such an incredible hold-up in getting money where the needs are in long-term relief,” Holmes said. “I don’t know what the delay is­—there’s a lot of frustration in the community right now, it seems.”

Holmes said it appears to him that there has been difficulty in getting money “turned loose” through West Long Term Recovery. He added he doesn’t blame the organization for the difficulties, and is unsure as to exactly why the transfer of money has moved slowly.

“I think the money that has been given to be distributed through the local churches in West­­—I think they have been very prompt in doing what they can do in their involvement, but it seems to be some of the larger funds, when it’s the multimillion-dollar resources, that have gone to a certain point but then stopped,” Holmes said.

The Red Cross has been working with West since the day of the explosion, however, Harrison and Muska said.

“Red Cross was there providing gift cards, different things. You know, just providing support services, so they’ve been faithful to all of this from the very, very beginning,” Harrison said.