WEST, Tex. -- Slowly, painfully, this town is rising from the ashes.
West was devastated in more ways than one when a fertilizer plant exploded with earthshaking force on April 17, killing 14 people, injuring nearly 200 and destroying homes and buildings for blocks around. The social fabric of any small town would be tested by so much pain and loss, and now people here are trying to determine whether to repair, rebuild -- or move on.
"People say this town will never be rebuilt -- hell, this town will be rebuilt!" insisted Raymond Snokhous, 83, who grew up in this tight-knit Czech community where his father had been the town blacksmith. "Just bow your neck and get to it."
The cause of the blast is still unknown; investigators have announced they will issue findings on Thursday. On Wednesday, Bryce Reed, the emergency medical technician who was arrested last week on charges related to possessing materials that could be used to make bombs, pleaded not guilty; law enforcement officials have emphasized that despite immense public interest in his arrest, there is no evidence linking Mr. Reed to the explosion.
In West, however, the focus is on the future. "We're moving into the long-term recovery," said Will Jones, the McLennan County commissioner whose district includes West.
But that is no simple thing. Even if people had good insurance, he said: "It may not pay for the demolition of their homes. How do we get this stuff demolished? How do we get this out of the area without bankrupting the homeowner, or even the city?"
If having the Federal Emergency Management Agency help to cart off the debris costs $5 million, a reasonable estimate, then even with federal aid, the share of those costs borne by the town could be substantial -- say, "a million dollars for a city that only has a $700,000 reserve."
George Smith, the medical director for emergency medical services in town, risked his life evacuating the nursing home next to the blast site. Now he is risking his sanity over insurance. "I'm dealing with nine different adjusters," he said, one each for the contents and structure of his home, his office, temporary home and clinic, and his three cars. Questions of whether to repair the house or knock it down loom large. "Not knowing is frustrating," he said.
He stood by the screen door in the entryway to his home, boarded over but still in place; the heavy wooden door was blown deep inside the house. Roof beams have buckled and the windows are gone. Itchy gray insulation forms ankle-deep drifts and coats every surface, including neat rows of more than 50 years of National Geographic magazines, and every piece of clothing. "You wouldn't think of wearing any of this again," he said.
A neighbor, Dorothy Zahirniak, 83, says she has no interest in moving back into her ruined home. "I've got too many memories there, and it hurts," she said. She is currently living near town with her daughter and son-in-law, and is hoping to find a new, smaller place.
Contractors are everywhere -- and warnings about unscrupulous contractors are, as well. Clarence Janek grew up in the area, and was on a cruise to Europe with his wife when he got a call from his son. "He said grandma got blew up in the nursing home," and they raced back to West. "She looked like she'd been in a head-on collision" after being struck by shards of window glass, but she had survived; they moved her to another nursing home in a nearby town, and now he and his crew are doing demolition and preparing lots for rebuilding.
"We're trying to keep it reasonable," he said, "because we grew up around here. We know everybody."
The green shoots of regrowth are most visible in the center of town, where the old Best Theater is being converted into the West Long-Term Recovery Center.
The director of the program, Karen Bernsen, said the goal of the "unmet needs" committee she runs is to provide money for people after they have gone through other sources of financing like FEMA and the Small Business Administration, because getting charitable contributions can disqualify recipients from collecting from some government programs.
"This is our first disaster," she said after a City Council meeting Tuesday morning. "We're trying to avoid all the pitfalls and land mines."
FEMA is still trying to estimate the costs of rebuilding, but some estimates have put the figure at $100 million. So far, the charities -- including work by Mr. Snokhous to gather money with help from national Czech-American figures like Fred Malek, who is a Washington power broker, and the people of the Czech Republic -- will inevitably be a small fraction of that. Money to help create and run the center was provided through a $195,000 grant from the Obama administration through the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Susanne Nemmer, who oversees the renovation of the theater building, is an administrative assistant to Mr. Jones, the county commissioner. She wheedled the paneling from a local mobile home company; free labor has come from religious groups, inmates detailed from the county jail and plumbers sent over from a Mr. Rooter franchise training program. And the contributions continue to roll in, Ms. Nemmer said, showing thousands of dollars that had come in on Tuesday alone. But she knows that contributions drop off when the spotlight moves on.
"The next disaster," she said, "is just the next 6 o'clock news away."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.