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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Iola Register

A year after explosion, West is on the mend WEST, Texas (MCT) — 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 offmessage 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. 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 fire trucks 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 fertil-

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izer 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 Fort Worth 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.” An outsider in this tightly woven community has become the face of renewal in some of the hardesthit and poorest neighborhoods.

Eleanor Castro talks on the phone in her home in West, Texas, Tuesday. Castro’s home was damaged in the fertilizer plant explosion last year. (Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

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 res-

ignation 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.