Thursday, May 30, 2013

FEMA Corps Aids Residents of West, TX After Deadly Explosion

An AmeriCorps NCCC-FEMA Corps team utilizes new iPad technology to support survivors of fertilizer plant explosion

by Jamie Flynn, FEMA Corps, Alpine 2

West, Texas, May 21, 2013 -- Crews remove debris from the parking lot of an apartment building destroyed in the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion.
Norman Lenburg-FEMA

On April 17th, a fertilizer plant exploded in West, TX. The blast destroyed a nearby apartment complex, a nursing home, schools, and many houses in the vicinity, damaging hundreds more. Of the 2,800 residents of West, 14 were killed as a result, most of them first responders who had been called to the fire that led to the explosion.

Not long after, my AmeriCorps NCCC-FEMA Corps team, Alpine 2, deployed to West as part of the Disaster Survivor Assistance Team (DSAT).

As we pulled into town roughly a week after the event, the damage unfolded in front of us. It started out as a few boarded up windows, but as we moved closer to the explosion site, we observed bricks blown off the sides of houses, garage doors caved in, and piles of debris pushed to the sidewalks.

We arrived at the high school, where FEMA and other agencies had set up their operations. We made our way to an English classroom that was now the DSAT office. On one wall an assignment dated "April 17, 2013" was written on the whiteboard. On another, a enlarged satellite pictures of West with colored dots representing different degrees of damage. The contact info for different agencies, meeting times, and priorities were written in marker next to it. And here we were amid the seasoned FEMA staff, in our crisp blue jackets, feeling a bit out of place and unsure of ourselves.

West, Texas, May 5, 2013 -- Local residents get help registering for disaster assistance during a town hall meeting. FEMA Corps was on hand
for on-the-spot registration.

We went over the game plan, were introduced to the FEMA reservists we'd be working with, and tested out our systems and connections to make sure our equipment was ready to go out in the field. Next, a couple of the staff members took us for a drive around town to see what kind of damage we would be dealing with. After some safety briefings and a welcome from the local emergency manager, we headed to our hotel in neighboring Hillsboro and prepared for our first day in the field.

As DSAT, our mission is to reach out to the community and help them understand the steps they can take to get back on their feet. This can mean going door to door, attending town hall meetings, and being present at other community gatherings. We are the eyes and ears of the operation, since we are talking with survivors, business, churches, voluntary organizations and community leaders. All the information we pick up is then reported up the FEMA chain so that the issues we come across can be addressed.

West, Texas, May 5, 2013 -- Bianca Bellino, a FEMA Corps member from New York City, answers a question about disaster assistance before the
start of a town hall meeting.

Additionally, FEMA recently developed a way to register survivors at their door. Together with the reservists, we ran the pilot program for this method. In my opinion, it worked great. In the past, after a disaster, people had just three ways to register for assistance. They could call 1-800-621-3362, go online at, or travel to the Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) set up in their area. As you can imagine, people who have just survived a major disaster do not always have access to a phone, an internet connection, or transportation. But with our iPads, we can bring the DRC to them. In about 20 minutes, we can register the survivor and explain to them the next steps in the process. If we’ve come across someone who already registered, we have the ability to look up their case and inform them of the status.

West, Texas, May 5, 2013 -- Samantha Miller (center), a FEMA Corps member from New York State, answer questions for a homeowner affected by the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion.

FEMA Corps was able to bring this new technology to the field and combine it with the knowledge and experience that the FEMA reservists possess. The working relationship between the two groups was excellent. We learned so much about FEMA programs and the application process just from listening to what they told the survivors. We’d had weeks of training in the classroom, but seeing how they interacted with the people we met made everything all come together.

It’s one thing to learn how to talk to a survivor in the classroom, but it’s another thing to be standing in front of what used to be someone’s house and trying to find the right words to say as they fight back tears. For me, this was the most difficult part but also the most rewarding. It was heartbreaking to listen to the stories and see the damage. But it was also incredibly inspiring to hear someone who had experienced so much loss talk instead about how thankful they are that it wasn’t worse, and that they had their health and their family and the whole community taking care of them. I was in awe of the way the community and the whole nation came together to support those who were affected. It was rewarding to be a part of that process and to see that little glimmer of relief on the faces of survivors who had just taken one more step on their long road to recovery.

West, Texas, May 21, 2013 -- Crews remove debris from the parking lot of an apartment building destroyed in the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion.
Norman Lenburg-FEMA

Brought to you by AmeriCorps NCCC, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Website powered by Blogger.