West committees begin funding resident recovery efforts

By Paula Ann Solis
Staff Writer

Five months after the West fertilizer plant explosion, the Long-Term Recovery Board has begun the distribution of funds for residents affected by the blast.

At a press conference Thursday in West, Ronnie Sykora, a Long-Term Recovery Center Board member, said the roughly $3.5 million collected from donations will be dispersed after petitioners are assigned caseworkers and necessary paperwork is filed, such as copies of medical bills, insurance claims and contractor estimates.

Sykora said West residents have an estimated $30 million in needs.

“We recently organized an Unmet Needs Committee, 15 people of our community that work and live here in the West area,” Sykora said. “Starting next week this committee of our friends and neighbors will hear presentations from the case workers. These cases will be brought to the committee anonymously, so we won’t know who is actually receiving the funds and they won’t know whose cases they’re reviewing.”

The Unmet Needs Committee will hear cases on a first-come, first-served basis.

Once a case file is fully written, it will be reviewed by the committee.

The committee will recommend the type of financial assistance the Long-Term Recovery Board should give to the petitioner.

The board will ultimately decide who will receive funds and how much is given.

Those selected to receive funds will not receive a check directly, Sykora said.

Finances will be sent to contractors or other businesses to be sure they are used properly.

Currently, 20 cases are ready to be considered by the committee and the funders’ table. Another 537 cases are in various stages of the case-filing process.

Sykora said case workers have acted as advocates for residents by helping some people find alternative funds or supplies while they wait to hear from the board.

One West resident, Crystal Ledane, 30, said the waiting has been the hardest part.

“I just don’t know where I’m at in the process,” Ledane said. “At a time like this I just need someone to tell me what’s happening.”

Ledane said she, her two children, husband and dog have been living in a borrowed motor home while they wait for an alternative to their unleveled home.

Ledane said caseworkers have been doing their best, but she said she feels West residents should not lead the Unmet Needs Committee because it may be slowing down the process.

“When you have people from the community who work at the front gate, sometimes they don’t feel your needs are more than others,” Ledane said. “Anonymous or not, everybody knows everybody’s story. Nothing is anonymous here.”

Sykora, along with Karen Bernsen, the executive director of West Long-Term Recovery, met with Ledane and other concerned residents after the press conference to discuss the frustration with delays in paperwork felt throughout the community.

Steve Vanek, West mayor pro tempore, and Dr. Marty Crawford, superintendent for West Independent School District, were also in attendance and spoke well of the relationship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’re very thankful and very appreciative of them that they’re here to support the school children of West because they are so influential to the long-term recovery of this community,” Crawford said.

Demolition of West High School is scheduled for mid-November and construction of the new campus is set for spring 2014. Crawford said enrollment has not been affected by the use of temporary sites.

Vanek said at this moment the government shutdown has not affected FEMA funds but he said he is scared of what the impact could be in the long run if the shutdown does not end soon.

West mayor Tommy Muska was not at the press conference, but, when contacted later, said he has been speaking with FEMA employees and said the only impediment will be on time.

“Delays are the only things to worry about,” Muska said. “I hope the government will come to some agreement some time this week.”

For information about the Long-Term Recovery Board or the Unmet Needs Committee, contact the board’s Executive Director Karen Bernsen at 254-432-2487.

Lariat reporter Rae Jefferson contributed to this story.