WEST, Texas (AP) — Frustration is building in the town where an April fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 people, injured hundreds more and caused $100 million-plus in damages, according to a published report Sunday.
Residents of West desperate for cash to rebuild their lives have seen a foundation overseeing disaster relief collect about $3.6 million in donations from across the country. But less than 20 percent of that has been paid out, according to The Dallas Morning News (http://dallasne.ws/1cutWdD ).
Some victims have criticized the application process as bureaucratic, slow and often humiliating. Others have given up entirely.
Deirdre Matus, 50, was blinded in the blast. Her husband was also injured and both are still waiting for monetary aid eight months later.
"We still don't know what we're going to get," Matus said "or if we're going to get anything."
The April 17 explosion destroyed a middle school, nursing home and scores of homes. Donations poured in, but so far, the West Long-Term Recovery has approved only $650,266 in payments on behalf of 43 victims. About two-thirds of that has actually been paid. The rest is awaiting invoices or other paperwork.
West Mayor Tommy Muska defends recovery efforts, but also acknowledges they are moving too slowly.
A local real estate agent, Karen Bernsen, initially volunteered to head the recovery effort. She, her husband and four children lived outside the blast zone, and she became the registered agent of the West Long-Term recovery in May. But as tensions mounted, Bernsen wrote a column in the local weekly paper accusing some residents of being ungrateful. She later resigned.
Delays in getting aid to those who need it are common following recent tragedies around the country. In West's case, efforts have been slowed by hiring caseworkers who interview victims, evaluate needs and assess who should get what.
After other tragedies, including the Boston Marathon bombing, speed was the priority and donations were quickly distributed — but doing so can lead to tax hurdles.
"I think the IRS would come down here and look at these books all day long," Muska told the newspaper.
The IRS granted West recovery efforts tax-exempt status July 11. But next came creating policies for disbursing money, a process which wasn't completed until Sept. 24. Agreed-upon rules stress that applicants must lack "the resources to provide basic necessities" and "must have exhausted all other resources."
There were other problems, too, including officials replacing all three case managers who took over shortly after the explosion. The case managers help victims navigate not just local recovery rules but those of federal sources.
Eventually, four additional case managers were added — but it was November before they began.
Some of those applying said they resent being treated like charity cases.
"They ask you degrading questions," said Brian Padgett, whose fiancee lost her home.
Sharon Rios, whose mother's home was destroyed, said many of her friends and relatives have given up on the donations.
"They're through fighting," Rios said.
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com