On April 17, 2013, the town of West, Texas was confronted with the unthinkable. A fertilizer plant exploded in the center of town, claiming the lives of 14 people, injuring more than 200 and impacting hundreds of residents.
In the immediate aftermath, more than 200 Red Cross disaster workers deployed to the small Texas town to deliver help and hope in the face of tragedy. Nearly 30 of those workers were mental health volunteers, licensed counselors who give their time to provide emotional guidance when it’s needed most. Nearly one year later, while great strides have been made on the road to recovery, mental health remains a major focus of the recovery efforts.
Pat Grajkowski, a fifteen year Red Cross volunteer, managed the mental health volunteers during the West response and spent weeks on the ground in the aftermath of the disaster. She said the community was in shock and experiencing emotional stress due to the unexpected devastation in their town, so Red Cross mental health volunteers acted quickly to deliver reassurance and hope to the residents.
“They feel like they’re going crazy, so we reassure them that what they are experiencing is a typical reaction to an abnormal situation,” Grajkowski said. “They will come back to feeling better, but it’s going to take a period of time.”
Over the past year, thanks to the generosity of donors from across the country, the Red Cross was able to dedicate an additional $295,000 to the long term recovery of West. In addition to supporting home demolition and repair, that funding is designated to mental health—to provide reimbursements to local counselors in the community who deliver one-on-one support to the residents.
“There was a great sense of community among the people in West. They are very resilient. There was an outpouring from many different agencies to come over and help people,” said Grajkowski.
Dr. James Ellor is with the Medical Reserve Core in McClennon County, where West is located. He has worked hand in hand with the Red Cross to identify and meet the ongoing need for counseling in West over the past year. Up to three times per week, Dr. Ellor delivers counseling in a special trailer provided by the Red Cross.
“What we are finding is that as much as 20 percent of the community is still feeling what I would call symptoms of major trauma,” Dr. Ellor said.
The funding from Red Cross has allowed far more counselors to provide mental health services at no cost to the community, greatly increasing the capacity for emotional and spiritual support as the one year anniversary approaches.
“Red Cross is there every day—in the form of a trailer, in the form of the money to support counseling,” said Dr. Ellor. “As long as there are people who need counseling, there will be counselors coming in, and they are all folks who are supported by your funds.”
Red Cross volunteer Pat Grajkowski said that during the time she spent in West, she could feel the sense of community and resilience. The residents were driven to pull together and help one another, she said.
“I know they are going to make it. I know they are going to rebuild. They are strong.”