Samaritan's Purse helps rebuild lives
by Tom Mayer
It's far worse, staff members on the ground there say.
Staff and volunteers with the Boone-based Christian-relief organization typically deal with the aftereffects of natural disasters. This year, teams have so far responded to the spiritual and physical needs of people whose homes and lives have been devastated from Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey, as well as from tornadoes and other storms in Mississippi and Georgia.
But the response in the small town of West did not follow a storm. There, a fire and explosion on April 17 at West Fertilizer Co. killed 14 people, injured more than 200 and, according to insurance estimates, caused more than $100 million in damage to homes and businesses.
Unlike an impending storm, there was no warning of the disaster, said Todd Taylor of Wilkesboro, a 10-year veteran with Samaritan's Purse. Taylor is leading the relief effort in West.
"People didn't know this was coming," Taylor said. "With a hurricane, you see the possibility. You have time to prepare. When this happened, people's lives changed in a split second.
"People lost homes, lost family members -- they lost their fire department."
"I've never seen anything like it," said Karina Peterson, a seasoned staff member with Samaritan's Purse, also in Texas.
Taylor arrived in West on April 22 to assess the needs of the community. A 10-person crew composed of staff and volunteers joined him a day later. Now, almost a week into the relief effort, the Samaritan's Purse crew is not assisting with recovery -- the need is more basic, and more complicated, than that. The crew is working to stabilize the immediate effects of the explosion.
"Samaritan's Purse is working with affected home owners," Taylor said. "We're helping people box up belongings to put them in storage. We're helping clean up glass. We're putting tarps over windows."
That the examination into the fertilizer plant explosion is ongoing means providing help is a challenge, he said.
"What makes this disaster so complex is because there's still an active investigation in the blast zone," Taylor said. "Just getting access to the affected areas is difficult, and not just for Samaritan's Purse -- homeowners have trouble getting in."
Safety concerns are driving that limited access, Taylor said. He estimates that 350 homes in West sustained damage, and about 160 of those are destroyed.
"One of the biggest fears is for a homeowner to be in a damaged structure when it collapses," Taylor said.
To mitigate that possibility, each home must be officially inspected before entrance is allowed.
That means a much slower relief response than with other disasters, Taylor said, but not a less thorough one.
"Samaritan's Purse will be here as long as there is a need for us to be here," he said.