When I was asked by the American Red Cross to go to West, Texas, to support the victims of last week’s fertilizer plant explosion , I had no idea how close to my heart this small Texas town would become. As I walk through the most devastated neighborhoods, I can imagine how peaceful and quiet these streets were until just a few days ago. Flowers surround mail boxes, wind chimes softly tinkle in the breeze, if I closed my eyes, I can almost believe that nothing has changed here; that unimaginable tragedy has not visited the town of West.
Eyes wide open brings reality as today; the streets of West are filled with Red Cross Emergency Feeding vehicles and Salvation Army canteen trucks. Lawns are buried in insulation and broken glass that was blown out of homes during the blast. Driveways are piled high with furniture, appliances, clothing and other belongings as volunteers; families and friends help pick through the piles of insulation trying to save photos, mementos and valuables. I walk for blocks through this community, visiting with the victims, offering words of support and giving hugs and information about where they can get the help they so desperately need. There is an unsettling silence here, people are struggling, tears are bravely held back, as they start to process what has happened and how they are going to deal with their new reality.
As I move through this tight knit community, my mind wanders to another town, another time, another disaster. On May 22, 2011, an F5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri destroying more than 8,000 homes, and killing 161 people. Joplin is my home, the place I lived for more than 40 years; the place where I grew up, it is where my entire family lives. There was no way to avoid being impacted by the tornado, just as there is no way to come away from West, Texas, without being touched and changed by what is happening here. The similarities of disasters are striking; a home destroyed by an explosion looks much like a home blown from its foundation by a tornado. The heavily damaged West Intermediate School in West brought tears to my eyes as I flash back to the scene of the destroyed middle I attended in Joplin as a child. The blank stares of the people of this town look just like the sullen faces of the people of Joplin in the days following the storm that changed lives forev er.
I begin to recognize something else that is familiar; the strength of West is something I have also seen before. Just like Joplin years ago, West is draped in signs of encouragement. Hugs and words of hope are being shared by friends and strangers alike.
Just like Joplin, West will recover. Time will help them heal and the strength of their friends and neighbors will support the victims when they think they just can’t go on. The scars from April 17, 2013, will remain a part of West, Texas, forever. Something I learned from Joplin is that two years from now, West will be stronger than before the explosion. They will be a closer community. They will be a town that comes together to remember the lives that were lost as they learn to celebrate what grows from the rubble of the explosion.
How, you may ask, do I know that West can survive and thrive? The answer to this question floats on the spring breeze as the silence is broken by the sound of laughter as the residents of West take a break from the clean-up, sitting on what remains of their porches, just enjoying each others company. Laughter is such a simple thing, such a strong sign, that the explosion is not the end of West, but a new beginning.