West recovery continues, will take years, some say

By Enedelia J. Obregón

Senior Correspondent

Long after the news cameras left the disaster sight and outsiders have stopped thinking about the devastation, the survivors in West still need help.

In West on the northern edge of the Diocese of Austin, long-term help is coming from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Charities of Central Texas, and the Ladies of Charity of Austin as well as the diocese under the umbrella of the Unified Catholic Response.

The community of about 2,800 –– at least half of whom are parishioners at St. Mary, Church of the Assumption Parish –– was rocked by an explosion on April 17 at the West Fertilizer Co. The explosion killed 15 people, injured 200, and destroyed a 37-block area –– including two schools, an apartment complex and a nursing home.

In the days after the explosion, St. Mary served as the staging area for first responders and law enforcement. Parishioners used St. Joseph Hall to provide hot meals and the Knights of Columbus opened its hall for relief efforts, funeral meals and town hall meetings. St. Mary also was the site for interfaith services, and most of the funerals for the victims were held at the parish.

Karen Bernsen, who is heading the West Long Term Recovery Center, said residents are now beyond needing the basics such as food and water. They are now in recovery mode, which she estimates will take three to five years. Insurance estimates place the losses at $150 million.

After working in the initial disaster response, the Catholic agencies provided a "House in a Box" to 237 families. Each family got a unit of items valued at about $1,200; it included a couch, mattress and box springs, a kitchen table and chairs, linens, towels, dishes, flatware, pots and pans. Families picked up their items from a warehouse in Elm-Mott.

Among those waiting to pick up items the first day was María Cortez, a parishioner from St. Mary who lives two blocks from the blast site.

"I lost everything," she said in Spanish. "All I took with me was my papers and two parrots, two canaries and three dogs."

Everything else was either shattered or covered with shards of glass or fertilizer dust. While their house is standing, it was lifted off its foundation and landed crooked.

"I don’t know when we’ll get that fixed," she said.

As Vickie McCreary waited for her household items to be loaded, she said that St. Vincent de Paul as well as Lutheran groups had put the most thought into disaster response. She was there with her sister, Vivian Green, who lives about four blocks from the blast site. Accompanying Green was her daughter, Shamala Johnson, who lives with her.

"St. Vincent de Paul is number one," McCreary said. "It’s not just about items. They make you feel that you’re going to get through this and they comfort you."

Families were given all new furnishings because promoting the dignity of each person served is paramount, said Stacy Ehrlich, executive director of the Diocesan Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Too often, the donated items from well-meaning people are not what people need. Nonprofits can stretch donated dollars as they purchase items in bulk, which is cheaper than having crews sort and organize donated items and distribute them, she said.

"The biggest misconception is that people need clothes," Ehrlich said. "But where are people going to put them if they’ve lost their homes?

Currently the city of West has a warehouse filled with donated items stored at Texas State Technical Institute in Waco.

Paul Kleypas, store director for the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in Austin, said his store welcomes donations of items that are in good, used condition. They can be sold at the store to generate revenue for SVDP services.

"Some people collect items and spend $60 on gas to bring it to the disaster site," he said. "It’s better to use that money to donate."

Monetary donations can also be used by clients to purchase items in the community from merchants affected by a disaster and thus help the economy get back on its feet.

As of July 8, the Unified Catholic Response had received more than $1 million in contributions for West through donations to Catholic Charities, the Society for St. Vincent de Paul and diocesan collections. The Knights of Columbus have also donated more than $180,000 to relief efforts.

The city has received about $7 million in federal aid and about $100 million in damages is covered by insurance, according to the City of West, the Insurance Council of Texas, FEMA and the Governor’s Office. That still leaves almost $35 million in unreimbursed losses.

Bernsen said about half of the cases they are managing are among people living below the poverty line.

"We didn’t even know we had that problem," she said. "About 135 households are in that boat … Because we are so family centered, everyone pinched pennies and had a good quality of life," she said. "But then they lose everything and they’re without insurance and they’re stuck."

The loss of West Rest Haven nursing home meant that many families now have an elderly person in their household.

"When a disaster occurs, people invite others to move in," she said. "There is no assisted living facility or elderly care facility."

Christine Reyes-Paiz, interim executive director at Catholic Charities of Central Texas, said the cooperative response between the nonprofits began with the Bastrop wildfires in September and October 2011 and has proven to be an efficient way of providing services.

The groups work together to help anyone who is in need –– regardless of legal status –– and not just Catholics, she said.

People who seek aid are vetted by case workers, which may seem to be long and bureaucratic, said Amelia Erickson, associate director for development with the Diocesan Society of St. Vincent de Paul. But there’s a reason for that.

"That way we don’t duplicate efforts," she said. "We also want to be good stewards of the donations people make to us."

To donate to the West relief efforts through Catholic Charities of Central Texas, go to www.ccctx.org. To donate to the Diocesan Society of St. Vincent de Paul, go to www.ssvdp.org.

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