A trackhoe sits in Larry Kaska’s driveway, poised to demolish the three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot house he bought in 1978.
His family has already salvaged important papers, jewelry and other personal items from the home. Now Kaska is on his last rescue mission: to free a red wooden toy box wedged into a small closet. He pushes and pulls and twists the long box until he liberates it from its confines.
“There are lots of good memories here,” he says.
Less than an hour later, a mountain of splintered lumber is sitting where the Kaskas once enjoyed barbecues, birthday parties, Christmases and Easter egg hunts.
This is another step in the Kaskas’ effort to find a new normal after an April 17 fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 people, wounded 200 others and destroyed 160 homes, including the one the Kaskas owned for 35 years.
The family is among scores of West residents living a double life of sorts, scraping away the shattered parts of their past while living in temporary homes and planning their next move.
Right now, much is temporary in West as the community tries to rebuild.
Temporary portable classrooms will be used this fall so the city’s 1,400 students can stay in town. A temporary housing crunch triggered an exodus with no easy way to stem it.
For some residents, there are temporary but potentially devastating money problems caused by two sets of bills: the mortgage on the house that’s destroyed and the rent for temporary shelter, the old payments on totaled cars and the new payments on replacements.
Underneath lies the nagging worry that people will tire of all this temporary stuff and move away, and West will just dry up.
It will take years to recover from the blast, said Karen Bernsen, who is heading up the city’s Long Term Recovery Center. But it will happen.
“We think if we stay patient, cool-headed and connected, we will recover in record time,” she said.
Working double time
Before the blast, West was a nice little town with one-story brick houses, tree-lined streets and longtime residents who never planned to move.
After the blast, unscathed homes sit beside those with collapsed roofs and twisted garage doors. Many seemed to have imploded, leaving shattered glass, filthy insulation, broken furniture and torn clothes behind.
Unlike those hit by a tornado or hurricane, most structures remained standing, leaving some of their owners wondering if they were salvageable. Many were not.
Over the past two months, dozens of community members have worked around the clock to rebuild their city while juggling full-time jobs. Mayor Tommy Muska, who runs an insurance company, has been in endless meetings and media interviews. Phil Immicke, associate pastor for First Baptist Church in West, works at the Waco Police Department while coordinating efforts to tear down totaled houses.
Bernsen runs her real estate business while coordinating long-term services for needy residents.
“I think I got three hours’ sleep last night,” she said.
They’redealing with the recovery on two fronts. They’re trying to figure out and deliver what residents need while finding ways to rebuild schools, roads, water lines and sewer systems.
But both of those tasks are complicated and lengthy. Residents are long past needing the basics of food, water, diapers and clothing, Immicke said. The city has a whole warehouse of those unused items stored at Texas State Technical College.
Instead, residents who are struggling need money to pay off mounting bills and replace salaries they lost when their jobs evaporated.
About 150 people were left unemployed after the West Rest Haven Nursing Home was destroyed. Local job placement organizations are trying to help those people find work, as well as providing information on financial planning, stress management and job training programs.
Multiple groups have stepped up to help. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has distributed about $640,000 in grants to people for temporary housing, home repair and reconstruction, personal property replacement and other expenses. The Red Cross helped with the first month’s rent and utility deposits. First Baptist Church did the same, as well as covering several weeks of lost paychecks for some people who lost their jobs.
The Kaskas were lucky. Cathy Kaska is a retired bank teller supervisor; her husband is the technology director for the La Vega Independent School District. The Kaskas are now living in their nephew’s formerly unoccupied house with their daughter, her husband and two children, whose home was also destroyed.
They dismiss the idea that their ability to cope is something special.
“People say, ‘How do you do it?’ ” Cathy Kaska said. “You just do.”
Keeping West together
West was never a rich city, and community leaders say its survival depends on persuading people to stay. More than half of the city’s $1.9 million annual operating budget comes from property and sales taxes.
Rebuilding was never a question for the Kaskas. Their insurance company came through, and the family is already envisioning the new home, one with a bigger pantry, a new carport and a front porch.
West resident Rick Wolf, whose home was also destroyed, isn’t coming back. He already owned a piece of land outside of town, he said, so he and his family will build there. He’ll miss his home on North Reagan Street, especially on Halloween night, when kids packed the streets to see the costumes, pumpkins, fog machines and decorations his neighbors put out.
“It’s time for a new chapter,” Wolf said.
That is exactly what Bernsen doesn’t want to hear. But even if people want to stay, housing is a big problem, she said. About 160 families were displaced after the blast, and the city doesn’t have enough real estate to go around. Rentals go fast, and few houses are listed for sale each year, she said.
City leaders are debating whether to bring in modular duplexes, she said. But people fear that would change the character of the town and ultimately drag down property values.
Bernsen also worries that problems with the city’s water utility are another strike against it. This summer, she said, will be a crucial time to make the decisions that will keep people in West.
“At some point, it becomes ‘Forget it; I’ll make my home elsewhere,’ ” she said. “We don’t want people to do that.”
FEMA ruling another hurdle
After the explosion, three of the city’s four schools were unusable. One was a complete loss; two others were heavily damaged.
West Independent School District officials told FEMA it would take $86 million to $96 million to rebuild schools and create temporary classrooms, but that number continues to evolve, said Superintendent Marty Crawford. The district has a $59 million insurance plan, though exactly how much the company will pay is still being negotiated.
In the days after the explosion, students were sent to the undamaged West Elementary School or to space at the nearby Connally school district. Crawford said they’ll all be back on campus this fall, many in temporary classrooms he jokingly calls “Portable University.”
Meanwhile, Muska says, the city is about $17 million short to repair its damaged water and sewer systems, roads and other related costs. Throw in the uncovered school losses, and West could be more than $44 million short, in total.
How the city and schools will pay for any of that is uncertain. West leaders had hoped FEMA would bridge the gap between its insured and uninsured losses. Last week, the federal agency said it would not do that. The state plans to appeal that decision.
School leaders have taken a wait-and-see approach to the situation. Muska, however, has repeatedly expressed his frustration in the media.
“They don’t need to deny this,” he said. “It’s stupid.”
City and school leaders say they will rebuild with or without FEMA money. But without it, fixing the infrastructure will be a lot harder, Muska said. West lost 65 percent of its water revenue when residents fled their homes, and Muska said that left the city without the means to even secure a bank loan for the project.
“Nobody’s going to give you a loan if you can’t pay it back,” he said.
Recovery starts with rubble
As the community deals with its problems, it is also healing from the trauma it experienced. Immicke’s daughter gets scared when the lights go out. Bernsen says loud noises jolt her. Cathy Kaska’s mother is just getting over the nightmares.
The evening the fertilizer plant exploded, Larry and Cathy Kaska were sitting in their recliners and watching “American Idol” when they smelled smoke. Thinking it was an electrical fire, the pair split up to investigate. Cathy Kaska went to the front yard, Larry to the back.
The plant was on fire. Moments later, the explosion knocked Cathy Kaska into the house. Temporarily deaf and trapped under the rubble of her demolished house, she called for her husband, who quickly freed her.
For some residents, one of the most healing moments has been seeing their houses razed.
Last week, the Kaskas gathered to watch the trackhoe tear into their house. Cathy sat on a lawn chair, an occasionally melancholy expression on her face. Larry stood near his daughter and granddaughter. They all took videos. No one cried or outwardly mourned for the past.
“We’ve been waiting for this,” Cathy Kaska said. “It was scary, but we made it.”
Recovery in West
Houses destroyed: 160-175
Number of people who registered for FEMA help: 775
Federal aid so far: $7 million
Insured losses: $100 million
Unreimbursed losses: $34.55 million
Sources: City of West, Insurance Council of Texas, FEMA, governor’s office