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Many shelters empty as Texas evacuees seek out friends and family

April 18, 2013|By Laura J. Nelson
  • A general view of the remains of a fertilizer plant and other buildings and vehicles after the plant exploded in West, Texas.
A general view of the remains of a fertilizer plant and other buildings and… (Larry W. Smith / EPA )

When the showroom floor of a West, Texas, auto dealership began to shake Wednesday night, general manager Ronnie Sykora knew something was very wrong. Then Sykora heard the news: A nearby fertilizer plant had caught fire and exploded.

He rushed to prepare for people whose homes had been destroyed.

“We were ready,” Sykora said. “We figured they could sleep on the floor. But nobody came.”

In West and the small towns that surround it, businesses and churches opened their doors to people made homeless by the deadly fertilizer plant explosion. But while the town's lone hotel filled up quickly, many  beds at temporary shelters have stayed empty — a testament, shelter operators said, to the generosity of a tight-knit community.  

Many evacuees have family or friends in neighboring towns who have taken in anyone who needs a bed, shelter officials said.

“Many of the West people are family-oriented and depend on one another,” said Bev Marrow, the secretary at Church of the Open Door in nearby Bellmead. It’s a tiny town, but it stretches out pretty far because everybody knows everybody.”

One family came by the church looking for food and prayer, Morrow said. But because evacuees haven’t been allowed to go home yet, she said, the severity of their situation — and how much help they might need — has not yet sunk in.

The grassy, sprawling campus of the Latham Springs Camp and Retreat Center in Aquilla can house 850 people. When the windows began to rattle Wednesday night with the force of an earthquake, guest services director Cindy Horn jumped in her car and drove to work to ready dorms and cabins for the newly homeless.

More than 12 hours later, Horn said, no one had come looking for a place to stay. Her relatives in West had gone home with other family. So had friends.

West only has one hotel — the next closest are 15 miles away. About 45 minutes after the explosion, the only person working the desk at the Best Western Czech Inn found his lobby packed with evacuees, some bleeding from the head and arms.

“I didn’t have time to think,” Joey Oliver, 24, said. “I only had time to act.”

One older man stood in front of the desk and insisted he was fine as blood ran down his face, arms and chest, Oliver said. He pulled out the hotel first aid kit and gave it to anyone who needed it.

The 70-room hotel was over capacity within hours, Oliver said, and some rooms have five or more people in them.

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