Pastor Tommy Wilborn
Spicewood, Texas resident, pastor, and Chaplain of the Pedernales Fire Department, Tommy Wilborn spoke with KUT News about the his experience with the wildfires for the Wildfire Oral History Project on two separate instances.
Wilborn: We wanted to move out to Spicewood, my wife and family and we moved out there in 2003, and we liked the culture out there. It seemed to be kind of in the country, but yet close enough to be to any cities, close to downtown and that you could still the stars at night. So, it was very ecofriendly and beautiful.
KUT News: So, I’ve been reading up on the Spicewood community and it’s been described even in the Statesmen and other places as sort of unique because I guess people within the community tend to sort of keep to themselves a little bit. So, how would you describe the Spicewood community before the fire?
Wilborn: The Spicewood community is actually very close though some have as much acreage as 30 to maybe 90 acres, they’re still very close to their neighbors. They kind of like the distant in between, but yet there’s a lot of community things that go on, a lot of self-employed individuals that live in the area and share that common thread.
KUT News: I’ve also heard a little bit about and I don’t – I’m just trying to find out here that people have told me about the river sort of acting as a divide in a way because I guess some of the more affluent residents live above the river and those who are not affluent per se live below it. What do you feel about that? What can you say about that?
Wilborn: I think it’s a very demographic to think of it that way. Since we have lived out there in 2003, naturally there are some higher incomes more second homes that are on Lake Travis, but the river divides Spicewood, the actual city to Pedernales, Spicewood on one side and so they are one community, but we are divided by the river there and so when the fires broke out, it broke out directly right by the river.
KUT News: And was there one community that was more affected than the other?
Wilborn: No. Both were impacted in a major way. We had Spicewood Baptist Church which was established, I believe, in 1914. Had a community center. They were taking donations on that side of the river because as the fire started they had roadblocks up in Travis County and people on the other side of the river were using Grace Outreach as a donation, drop off, relief area.
KUT News: So, did both sides of the river lose the same amount of homes or was one side closer to the fires than the other?
Wilborn: The side that was closest to Spicewood, the actual town of Spicewood, only six miles away from that city, that’s where the homes – the fire started and, of course, there’s also – it’s unincorporated and there’s no fire hydrants so we use water wells out there and septic systems and that made the fire a great deal harder to fight, but that’s where the homes were lost, right around the river. Only on one side. That would be the north side.
KUT News: Alright. So, let’s go back to that day a little bit. Take me through that day if you can, including the morning where, of course, where nobody saw this coming. What was that like for you?
Wilborn: Right. It was a Sunday morning. As pastor, of course, I preached the Sunday morning message. We had a great turnout, maybe 100 people were there and we fellowshipped after church and as everyone had left the building, I was the last one and as I was locking the building, I could see and hear our large American flag snapping back and forth outside so the winds were just really blowing one direction shifting toward the south. As I turned to get into my vehicle is when I looked over and I saw what looked like a hand of many fingers right over the community, black smoke and you could see flames in the air, maybe 50-60 feet and so I immediately got in my truck and went to try and find the fire site and tried to evacuate some people, to alert them. Travis County was on the scene at that same time.
The firemen were already out, approximately 150 firemen were fighting it. There were also volunteer firefighters that were out there. Everyone was doing their very best to get out of the community because, as I said, there was no water. The trucks, fire trucks and what’s called brush trucks, they only have several hundred gallons of water a piece. Once that’s gone, there’s nothing you can do. We just needed to evacuate. I guess that was maybe 1:00 p.m., on that Sunday when I was evacuating people. Before I knew it, it was dark and there’s a Chevron station off Highway 71 that’s about three miles from the church and it was very hot that day, needless to say, in spite of the fire and more than 200 people were at this Chevron gas station.
It’s kind of on a hill and they were watching their homes burn and actually in shock waiting to get back to them. At that point and time, none of this knew that this was going to be several days before anyone was allowed to even see their property or know what the loss was. What I did was I opened up our church down the street and went up to the Chevron station and just stood in the back of my pickup and asked those to come out of the heat, just come to the church, we have water, we’ll come up for some phones for you, some rides to help get you someplace for the night or get you to family. Some individuals did that. Many just stayed the night in shock watching the flames.
The fire burned actually it was more than four days and 6,400 acres were consumed and that is ten square miles of fire so it’s very shocking. We knew that it wasn’t just homes. We knew that the people that had sheds that wasn’t old furniture, or old lawnmowers; those were shops where people worked as cabinet makers, building furniture, art work. It was a way that really for generations they had been working out of their house, living out there in its own culture and it was just completely burnt to the ground.
KUT News: So, what did that feel like for you? Just to see Spicewood on fire.
Wilborn: It was very crushing to see that. Those are my neighbors. We thought our house was on fire even. My wife had gone home to pick up our pets from our house. For four days, the smell of smoke it would get in your nostrils and you couldn’t tell what was on fire and what wasn’t. As you’d try to sleep at night, there was no possible way. The fires were burning within a couple of miles of our home and it smelled like at all times that you were just on fire. The Fire Department would call it containment where they had it under control only to have the high winds hours later where it would escape what they call containment. So, it was very frightening. After the shelter of having people at the church, I stayed there a great deal of the time, realized that many people weren’t going to go anywhere for a while. They were hungry, they needed water, they needed an air condition place and so myself and a friend of mine went into the Lakeway community and we started trying to collect as much food as we could and it was kind of peculiar because we were going to these Cornish hens.
We purchased a whole basket full; it was everyone that they had, it may have been 60 of them and it was a little shocking to them as they said, sir, why are you buying all of our hens out? And I said we’re well on fire like several miles up the road here and so they would give those to us to help the community even though it was just several miles away from theirs and then they offered help. Can some of our employees come up there and help you prepare this food? Well, sure, that was – why didn’t I think of that I said to myself. And then I went to Lowe’s, I went to Home Depot, trying to be proactive just to see what people might need. Gloves seemed like a good idea so we bought all the gloves in Home Depot, all of them in Lowe’s. Safety glasses, earplugs and mainly the masks that you would put over your face. Though they were painters masks, we advised people to change them every two hours because the air quality was so poor, but, like I said, many did not leave and the majority would stay or in the community around at large and then we would just feed the community at the church.
It didn’t matter if it was law enforcement, if it was fire department, if it was your neighbor or if it was one of the wildfire survivors, we just wanted to feed people and help them. I realized a very important thing in that. The emotional need. They needed to tell the story of what happened to them and how they felt. Hearing many of those stories will affect you greatly. Prize possessions that they had that were handed down for generations. Some were never able to go get their pets. A friend of mine had many exotic birds. Some had horses that they had and raised and those animals were lost in the fire. There was nothing that they could do.
KUT News: So, talking about those stories and you mentioned that you guys thought that maybe you had lost your home. So, can you tell me about that? So, what is your story? Was your home affected or did you lose anything?
Wilborn: They did ask us to evacuate our area as far as many areas all the way up until where the church of Grace Outreach is located. We stayed there just because we were kind of entrenched in so many people in need and there were not many rescue people there. This was the largest issue. What we didn’t know was that Bastrop’s fire had started the same time on the same day and that was taking all the resources away and they needed help, but we needed help and it was a realization after eight days of this that we were going to have to go help. People did not realize that we were on fire.
KUT News: So, did you lose your own home or how did that – what happened with that?
Wilborn: Okay. We did not lose our own home. Friends that we knew that were out of town, we would go over to their homes and we’d call them and tell them what was going on. They told us to get certain articles and items out of their homes and we did.
KUT News: So, you told me that there were lots of stories. I guess, the emotion of it is what impacted you. Are there any stories that stand out to you that were particularly moving?
Wilborn: Yes, absolutely. For several days, we had worked before the FEMA had come out, many of the individuals from emergency management of Travis County – on several days in a row, I felt like that God had taken the day off with me and was rolling me like a pair of dice, as well as a friend of mine. Everywhere that we would go to get help outside the community, they would just – they would give it. They cared. They did come out. I remember Lowe’s coming out and Randall’s. They are still in their work clothes. They got off work on their own free time though they still had their uniforms on. They’re in the parking lot serving up food so not only did people give items, but people that weren’t even from the community itself were coming out there to help just do anything. At that point, it was still very dangerous. Electrical lines were down in the neighborhoods.
You still could not get into them, but people came out there to encourage others, to listen to their stories, to tell them it’s going to be alright and they backed it up with actions. Many people started bringing donations by the church. They would come to the back. We have about 1,500 square feet of a large room in the back of our church. It was being filled up with pet food, with non-perishable food. At one point, we ran out of water which was a big issue, drinking water and we couldn’t find any around at a lot of the local stores because people – that was one of the first things to go. The friend that I was with at the church, he said that’s it, we’re just going to drive somewhere until we find water. I said I don’t think we should leave the church cause too many people were coming by helping so I knelt at the altar to pray and I just simply said, Lord, we really need some water and as I was praying, a knock on our side door. My friend is looking at me praying.
A knock on the side door of the church happens. Four men say, “Is this Grace Outreach Family Church?” I stopped praying and I answered them yes it is. Somebody had sent over here with some water. Can you help us unload it? The truck was weighed down probably past its back windshield with nothing, but cases and cases of water. We unloaded that truck and another pickup drove in not related from those people. We asked who sent them? And they said we don’t know, we’re just the delivery people, we were just told to bring it here. This is Grace Outreach, right? So, we were back in business. Our personal home did not burn, but I have trailers, I have tools and we got together as a community and started just – we weren’t going to lock it all up, we’re going to bring it up to the church area and leave it and as people had need, they would just simply come and borrow it. I got them back a few times. Sometimes they were broken and then it would be gone again and I would get it back and it would be repaired. This went on and on even to this very day. Almost seven months after the fire.
Some neighbors really stick out in my mind. I’ll withhold their name, but one very good man. His home had burned to the ground. The fires were so hot that many of the homes – if they were made of stone or brick that there was no longer even stone or brick. It was dust. This man that I knew had a son that had passed away a year earlier and he was going to go on a trip because his son asked before he died of cancer to have his ashes sprinkled somewhere else. Well, when the fire burned the house down, the ashes were impossible to locate and to this man it seemed like, not only had he lost his son the year before, but he had lost him again, as well as everything he had.
Later and miraculously, they were able to still find the ashes of his son, collected them. Now, as they are rebuilding their home, they are planning now to go sprinkle the ashes as their son requested. No one did I hear blame God, angry at people, angry at the Fire Department. People were very gracious and had hearts of gratitude that they survived. The Fire Department was probably the hardest hit because they want to save every home, but you cannot fight fire without water and though they would make land breaks and though they would use their trucks, there were a few injuries of firefighters, none lost their life, but they went multiple days without sleep because that’s all that we had in the area. Many homes were saved, but 48 homes were destroyed and it’s very hard on them. There was also, just as it was in Bastrop, firefighters that while fighting fires for the community lost their own homes and they don’t get over that very easy. That’s – they felt responsible and that was their job. They did everything in their power, but, like I said, it’s a small community and just couldn’t save them all.
KUT News: That story about the water is really interesting, and I remember when on Tuesday you kept saying that you believe in miracles. Sorry, Thursday, so what is that? You’re praying for water and then water comes in and the guy’s like I’m just the delivery, I’m just here to deliver and then you find these ashes of this guy’s son. Is that a miracle? What is that?
Wilborn: Yes. It absolutely is a miracle. I have faith. My faith is in the God of the Bible, Jesus Christ. During the fire, I saw that God was closer at that moment than I had ever seen in my life. Caring for people, helping them, encouraging them, making provision for them. There was more bonding during that disaster of the wildfires than I have ever seen before ever. People in other communities – other church expanded with so many donations we had to have, we couldn’t contain them. After less than two weeks, a friend of mine had a building one mile from us that had 10,000 square foot of empty warehouse space and I asked, we need to use that area, what would you charge me to be able to use it and no money was exchanged.
Take it, use it, people are in need so we filled that 10,000 square foot up warehouse in the course of two weeks and as people were going back to their homes, people had made homemade sifters so that people could find things through their ashes and they would go out to their homes, volunteers, once we were allowed to go back into the neighborhood. On the weekends, as many 150-250 for more than three months showed up every weekend to join those homeowners in trying to help them find and locate rings or documents or just clearing the debris.
KUT News: Do you know if that went on in the other cities, as well that type of –
Wilborn: That type of community – I’m not aware. My hand was to the plow, I was looking down the whole time, helping, coordinating. We had people that come out – this was not me, this was God organizing a team which was a community and people would bring shovels, they would bring their tractors, they would – peoples’ cars had burned up. They would loan them cars. Some would give them cars by just community people. It was just quite extraordinary.
KUT News: Okay, the other thing that I’m sort of this image in my mind that I think something came out is you getting on that truck and telling everybody hey, I have a church, let’s head over there. What – why did you – how and why did you know to do that? Why did you do that?
Wilborn: I guess it’s just intuitive. I thought if that was me, what would I want people to do for me and that’s exactly what I did. They needed help. I felt very guilty the first few weeks because we did not have a lot of resources to work with. Things were donated thank goodness. The community come together. There was no long term recovery committee in place. We don’t have a police force. We only had the Fire Department or EMS as first responders.
KUT News: Well, I guess the thing that I was coming to is that it seems like you’ve taking on – I don’t know if you’ve taken on or it was sort of thrust upon you, this more of a leadership role and I don’t know if that has to do with Spicewood being an unincorporated community and not having as many resources or what, but I guess, how did you assume that position?
Wilborn: After the eighth day of being completely worn out, I thought leaders would emerge either from within the community that knew what to do or from outside the community and I started watching the news about the sixth or seventh day and then I noticed that Bastrop was on fire. On one of the TV stations I saw and recognized homes in Spicewood rolling on the TV set in front of me, but underneath it, it said it was Bastrop homes because I knew those homes and I knew the addresses and it was at that point on the eighth day I said, I prayed, I just said God, I need – somebody’s got to go forward. Will they listen? Will they listen to a pastor of a community? Well, I didn’t hear anything from the Lord so I took that as yes so amazingly enough FEMA had come on site with some specialists, I believe they call them IP Specialists.
They had gone to some sites in a sense in incognito to look over and as I was making my way to go to Austin, they dropped by the church and they asked, “Is there a fellow named Pastor Tommy here?” And I said “Yes, that’s me,” and they said “We are IP Specialists from FEMA. Can we talk to you for about 30 minutes?” Then I said sure. So, there in the church they sat with me and said that as they had visited sites, they were wondering how they had their essentials, the food and water and clothing and they were no Red Cross trucks out in our area giving out things. It was the donations that we had – we were taking things on trailers to the people because they had no way to get there. They had no internet, they had no cable, everything had burned up, they were cut off. And so, as they spoke with me, they said well, as we have talked to several people, we realize that your church and the community seems to be rotating right out of this area, right out of your church.
Would you mind coming to our, it’s called a joint effort station I believe which was in Highland Mall and I said how soon? And they said tomorrow and I said I’ll be there. As I went there, they were very kind, it was very high security, but they met me at the door there, they started explaining to me – it was very important for Spicewood that was being left out of the picture. Many other communities were on fire, but it needed formulate a recovery system and I said that’s a great idea. Who do we get to do that? And they said well, someone in the community has to do that. I said well, so far, no one in the community has stepped up as kind of a leader, but there were many leaders there that were capable and they said – they gave me a brochure that told about long term recovery committees.
I had never read one, never been involved in one, but established one that same week called the Community Leaders, by phone, to the church and we had our first long term recovery committee. How did I get to be chairman? A FEMA rep had showed up at the meeting and I asked that question, well, how do we form? Who is going to be a chair or president? And they simply said, I think you are. And so, I said if that’s what it takes, then temporarily I’ll be that and she said well, since this is new, you’re going to have to appoint others.
Many of my friends which are still my friends gratefully after that were appointed to Vice-President. I tried to choose very wisely. I tried to match people’s skills with their strengths and after a period of two weeks, 33 people had been added. There were eight Board members. The rest were committees. Circles of individuals each doing different jobs. Helping the community, reporting back to the Board and no one jockeyed for position, we have not had not one argument about things since then. People just cooperated for the need of the community, set their own things aside. Many of them have missed much work at much cost. These committee people have volunteered more than over a 1,000 hours of free time.
It’s coming at a cost to them. I mean, those were wages they lost, but they were doing it for the community and the long term recovery, we went a step further and turned it into a 501(c)(3) non-profit and through much reading, just simply on the internet, talking to individuals from FEMA and Travis County, we found that if we set up as a 501(c)(3) that people would tend to donate more to that because they knew 100% of the money would go toward the survivors. So, we did that. Then we discovered that we also were more eligible for grants. People would always want to know if it was given to another organization, who’s in it? Who’s giving it out? Where’s it going, whereas a long term recovery committee, it’s open and immediately we established a website and that’s www.spicewoodltrc.org.
On that website we published all of our finances, what we had immediately to make them public, mostly to show how short we were, but also for people to know where they’re giving was going. What we’re having to do with that money at the time. More than $300,000 was spent in the first five months in cleanup efforts from other organizations that never even gave to a long term recovery; they would just purchase things for people because on our website, we would have a needs list and they could go to that. People in the community as they left and went to a friend’s house, they could see the next step what was going on, what was happening, who had the biggest need? If you were in need of something that was special, they could type that in or they could press a button and click anybody on those committees, anybody in the community and we would try to work with them.
Tonight, we’re having our first – I’m sorry tomorrow night we’re having our first community meeting. We have open meetings every other week, but that’s been more of the committee, some from the community have showed, but we want to go to the community and answer any questions and still find out what are your needs? It’s just us chickens here. Let’s talk, let’s help our neighbor, let’s get it done.
KUT News: So, going back to what you said a little bit earlier. Spicewood did not really get a lot of coverage initially and why do you think that was and how do you feel about that?
Wilborn: Well, assume that we were just totally unprepared out there. We had the assumption that being in Travis County that Travis County would come to the rescue with resources, something like I stated earlier, I had much guilty over not having much resource, but I realized in the Bible it says a church is to be a storehouse, it stores up things for seasons such as disaster or need. We did not have that. We had $2,500 in our church’s account fixing to pay our next mortgage. Called
the individuals that we bank with and told them I’m not going to be able to really send the money because people here are needing help. We spent a lot of our money on dumpsters initially and I laugh because it doesn’t seem like wow, you could have bought something a little more nicer, something, but it bought hope to the community. It was a symbol of cleaning up.
As we did that, the people that had these roll off dumpsters, they would donate and if they didn’t donate, then I would purchase one and then they would donate. It just seemed to work like that miraculously. Other churches – what can we do? We want in on the dumpsters. We want to be able to help people. These come at a price from $600 to $900 a piece. Not only the community of Lakeway, but also to Marble Falls. We kind of linked together as a whole to help the community and then the backup came. Then the FEMA came in. Austin Disaster Relief Network, Travis County, Red Cross and they all stationed out of the church. We transitioned all the church into nothing, but an emergency op center so to speak and you could still receive food and we were having donations come in through the back constantly and people from the community coming through the front signing up for FEMA monies or Small Business Administration which would help with residential housing. If they had health issues, we had a doctor there. The air quality was very poor, still is poor out there to some degree, but a nurse was there to help people along all in this one unit. It was a beautiful thing.
KUT News: So, maybe I wasn’t – so, I was actually referring to like the media coverage. Spicewood wasn’t really covered very much in the media so is that something that you guys have I don’t know talked about or –
Wilborn: Okay. To answer about the media, we would call the media. I don’t harbor ill feelings; it’s just apparently news is the very harsh things is what they were showing. When we were trying to let them know where they could come and get help, food, shelter, we would contact many of the media individuals and it might make it on their website, but it would not be broadcast. There was a radio station and I believe it was 107, 105.9. This was a very unique thing. They called me on the telephone and said, we want to come out and do a live broadcast and I said, what do you need from me to do this? Well, permission. We just need permission. Well, it was amazing. They come out and they set up flags on the side of the road. It was like instant attention on the highway.
Their van was parked by the road. It was black colors, large flags up and down the highway, it was a live interview, a live speaking about what’s happening at the church, where you can get help, who all is here. This went on for hours. Apparently, prior to that, they had contact with national media and it was at that point finally media started to contact us. Now, I have connections. I’ve come to know the people from the radio stations, from the television stations and the newspapers so now we are all in contact and in sync, but initially did not have that.
KUT News: And, how do you feel about that? How do you feel about the fact that – I mean, obviously, there were large fires going on elsewhere, but there was also a fire in Spicewood and it wasn’t being covered.
Wilborn: Yes. There’s nothing they can go back and be undone and to be honest with you, the Lord took care of every need that was out there. When Travis County and FEMA came out and saw our donation centers, they wanted to know who set it up. Was it Capital Area Food Bank, was it United Way, who has helped do this? The answer was just the people around here. After months of giving these things away to the fire victims, we had still an enormous amount remaining. We tried to send a lot of this to other places that were on fire, but they seemed to be full of supplies too so someone had the great idea let’s have a garage sale and sell this. We had a lot of oversight from different organizations there and people from the Spicewood area that were employed “so to speak.”
Nobody got paid, but they were the people that would take the money or tell you that was so much. We ended up raising over $12,000 on the garage sale which that money went into the long term recovery committee fund to help build homes. People would pay $200 for a bag of cookies. It was the most amazing thing. So, you see the Lord provided before others got there, but right now we are in desperate need of funds. We are – some are rebuilding already out there we’re helping. Like I said, we cleaned up before December ended. We had all the home sites cleared. Debris removed. Mulched. Their essential needs met. Everybody has now, except for maybe two out of the ten square miles that burned, only a couple of water wells that are not functioning. These were things that were paid for by churches, by community people so basically it is up and running. Homes are being built right now. We need our donors such as the Red Cross, the Methodist, St. Benson’s DePaul, all of these have been very helpful in the cleanup, but now we need funds. The Irwin Center had the big concert. They made a great deal of money.
Spicewood only received $50,000 for rebuilding out of that large concert. Most of the money, I assume, had gone to Bastrop so we only had $50,000 and we had to – it was a matching fund so we had to build something and then give the receipts to and we’re hoping to receive those matching funds soon. They gave us another fund of $5,000 that we did receive and that was to help facilitate, keep things working around there for rental equipment and what have you.
Pastor Tommy Wilborn: Tommy Wilborn from Spicewood, Texas.
KUT News: We should start with – I know you went down to the Capitol right to get a –
Wilborn: Yes, but that ended up being the Highland Mall. They had set up a temporary unit out of there for both Bastrop and any other counties and, by the way, FEMA assigns a disaster number and our disaster number in Spicewood is the same as the one in Bastrop. People from Bastrop could come and receive help in Spicewood.
KUT News: But then people from Spicewood can –
Wilborn: Well, they really couldn’t because it was more blocked off. So much media attention had been focused; they weren’t allowing a lot of people in.
KUT News: But I thought you had told me when we were in the church on Thursday that you had gone down to the Capitol and there was someone standing there and you asked them how you could get aide from FEMA.
Wilborn: Yes. That was just somebody that was on – that was one of the County Commissioners, Karen Hubert. Met with her and –
KUT News: Can you tell me that story a little bit? What happened? How you decided to go down there and how you met her?
Wilborn: Okay. I didn’t know what offices that they had downtown. I do know it’s the Granger Building now, but that’s what I was directed to was to go to the Granger Building and I just told them that I was from Spicewood and that I was looking for some help for our community and, of course, she directed me – that’s how – so I was contacted with FEMA from that joint effort system at Highland Mall and then through the county, through the help of the County Commissioner Karen Hubert.
KUT News: Oh, so I guess what I’m wondering more is just the story of how and why you decided to go down to the Capitol to get help?
Wilborn: I just knew that around the downtown area, the Capitol that there were government buildings and surely there’d be somebody that you could talk to. Trying to let them know about our community.
KUT News: Did someone direct you there?
Wilborn: No, that was desperation. That was going to seek help. Just going to seek help.
KUT News: So, in terms of FEMA then, what kind of aide have you – has the community seen from them and has it been enough?
Wilborn: No. Has it been enough? I have nothing really to compare what FEMA has paid out in many of the disasters. It really is a case by case management approach that they use. They look at the amount of people that’s in the family, if someone is a veteran, if somebody has special needs, many children if their caregivers – a lot of things are based. FEMA does case management. They meet with the people, they find out all this information. It was – the fire started September 4 and it was September 27 before FEMA was onsite in Spicewood as far as I’m aware of and they started their case management and working through the system and then that was trying to help people find places to live, still at that point, I mean three weeks later and then it was October 11 before we got word from FEMA that homeowners, if they proved that they owned the lot, could receive a FEMA trailer. So, there’s a lot of lag time that was there, but they worked very steady and efficient at what they did. It took about four months for them to go through the process of case management, studying the families, asking questions and then they presented that as long as the individuals would sign a sheet of paper allowing the long term recovery committee to see what the needs were, that’s how we ended up with the figures and other needs that FEMA collected.
KUT News: So, how did people feel about that? That lag time, that four months, I mean, that’s four months of frustration?
Wilborn: Yes, I believe they’re trying to improve on that system. It was especially hard with Spicewood because it’s more rural. I heard from many of the FEMA representatives this area tends to reject them even. I’m not sure if it was because they came in late or if it’s because they could not understand the verbiage that they used. So, the length of time has been definitely hard because people are living in makeshift garages or families in one temporary housing unit or before that, they had to purchase a used trailer of some type to live in or three families that are staying in a home that didn’t burn in the area so naturally, the wear and tear over time has been very difficult for the people there.
KUT News: Would you see any comparison there like I’ve heard before between this situation and possibly Katrina and what happened in New Orleans?
Wilborn: I was born in New Orleans so I watched that very close. I think that was such a catastrophic thing that happen in New Orleans, no one knew what to do. We have experienced some of that in Spicewood. Naturally, with so many counties that were burning at the time of the Labor Day fires, in our area, in the Spicewood area, we needed help with the LCRA and Travis County to come out and advise us on what we needed to do after the fire. The fire, like I said, not only destroyed the bricks and the stones on homes, but even our cactus and shrubs and most trees were just – they’re gone. Rocks burnt on the ground. Now, it didn’t rain for a while, but once it rained, immediately we experienced erosion problems so I guess the comparison to Katrina is it’s so overwhelming with this wildfire that people have not experienced something like this before. They don’t know what to do. In the meantime, these are great needs when a wildfire occurs is to get the soil, to stop the erosion, to put berms up.
We have many natural springs in our area that were just beautiful and pumping water out and you could visibly see them all over the place. Now, they do not. Very little water supply. Recently, many of the wells have dried up even so we need help out there dramatically. We need seeds, native seeds that grow, cactus brought out there. Recently, a company tree folks came to the church on Saturday and donated several hundred trees to the community at their cost, but we need government assistance on these type things, on erosion, the seeds, how to plant the berms, things like that.
KUT News: So, talk to me briefly about this erosion problem. How did that happen? I mean, we just talked out there about it was sort of an oversight, I guess on the city’s part or I don’t know who’s part really. Can you tell me about that a little bit?
Wilborn: I think it was an oversight on the community to grasp the importance of that. I think that the agencies, the government, the county, I think they were overwhelmed, did not know where to begin, they did not have many employees just ready to go out and can repair everything nor funds apparently that were set up for this, or at least were not released and so it’s just overwhelming. We’re currently working on it as a community. We hired some consultants to come out to go over the acreage with us, the important areas of springs, we’ve had different organizations, Alert Academy, the Boy Scouts of America, the Lutheran Church Disaster Teams, the Methodist, all of these have come out and we have tried the best we can to plant whatever we have, but we need education on this from someone. We would really prefer like if there was a University, such as A&M that knew quite a bit about seeds and agriculture and could take on Spicewood area as a project and possibly over the term of a year or two, bring it back and the school could be funded maybe by the government and yet, that’d be helping Spicewood. The same with UT, maybe they could have a pilot program to help us recover.
KUT News: And when you say help us recover, you’re specifically talking about the erosion problem or what are you specifically talking about?
Wilborn: Helping with the environment, our ecosystem, our streams, our trees, the beauty of the place. I went out there Saturday on Paleface Ranch Road and there’s a zip line which is you hold onto this handle and you fly through across the creek and through trees and that burned and was tore up for quite a bit of time. Several months later, I noticed it Saturday that they were open, but it’s not beautiful like it was and the individuals that live in that community, they really strive to keep it very eco-minded beauty natural and that’s another reason why we’d like to see some green homes built out in the community, as well.
KUT News: So, talking about the long term recovery committee specifically, so yeah, let’s get into some figures. How many homes have been built, are being built, how much money has been collected and how much of that money is going into the recovery process?
Wilborn: Okay. The long term recovery committee has $150,000.00 in its account. That is going to fill the biggest needs first which are the building of homes. We have searched several plans and styles of homes to get the best price. The volunteer labor will be a big portion of that so we just – we’re going to use those funds and we have some other donators such as I was saying earlier, the Red Cross, the faith based non-profit organizations, we’re going to try to match each other’s funds and build these homes together and that’s how that’s going to work.
KUT News: Okay. And how much money did you say?
KUT News: And how was that – was that raised or donated or loaned or how did you get that money?
Wilborn: That was donated. We received one grant so far, the United Way, $23,000. It was mostly just individuals and small companies that have contributed, as well as the church having the garage sale. Those funds went into it. That’s how it was acquired.
KUT News: Okay, $150,000?
KUT News: In seven months?
Wilborn: That’s right.
KUT News: So, do you see that as enough, not enough?
Wilborn: No, it is definitely not enough. Just to get as close to the livable condition that we were in before the fires will take approximately $750,000 more dollars than we currently have so it is – it would be the million dollar mark that would be needed to help us all the way down to the erosion and our well and water problems that we have.
KUT News: And okay so I do have to now address some of these issues that some of the residents have told me about and I’ve talked to a couple of them who have talked about having to use their current trailer or home as collateral to finance their new home, I guess. I don’t actually even exactly know how that works so I was wondering if you could explain that to me and ask me how and why it’s working the way it is.
Wilborn: Okay. This is really between FEMA and the homeowner. When FEMA wrote the homeowner a check, of course, we do not know what FEMA gives them and when FEMA gives them that money, it is specifically designated for certain things and so some of the money to rebuild a home that was given is supposed to be later given an account for by FEMA, maybe an auditor would come out from FEMA. If you have purchased other things with that money and it did not go into the house that would be a violation. A violation could be a substantial fine to them taking back the home itself so, but it took several months for FEMA to arrive at what people were paid. When they were paid, they needed the place and some purchased trailers instead of just the temporary ones; they would furnish something that would be more suitable or an additional trailer for their family. And, the long term recovery committee, we’re trying to pull as much resources together as we can and we’ve asked some if you use the FEMA money that you have for a trailer to live in, will it be possible that if the home was built back in its place through the long term recovery committee, the Red Cross, the outside agencies, since they would have a home, would they be willing to have that trailer that they purchased be sold and use that money for someone else to get a home so really it’d be more of a gain for them than a loss, but that’s it. That had to do with the FEMA money that they were issued and how it was allotted.
KUT News: So, I’ve talked to some of them and they feel like that’s unfair. What is your response to that?
Wilborn: The Long Term Recovery Committee, it does not make those kinds of decisions. That’s just between them and FEMA. FEMA gives different regulations for different things. If it was a car, they would give you some monies for a car and if you bought a car, they just wanted to know what it was. If you were a renter living in the area and you qualified for some help, then they would issue some funds for you and some of those individuals have had to move away. But those who own the land that made their application for a new home, that’s the monies that I think that is conflict with some of the owners out there, but the long term recovery committee really works as that liaison to help okay, let’s see what’s happened here that maybe you have purchased and how we can make this work so you can get exactly what you need back out of this.
KUT News: So, you guys have made that request because you feel that this is how the community would be best served?
Wilborn: No, knowing that some could lose maybe a home that was rebuilt by the community, that puts them at risk and so we only make a request, hey, you do realize you may be at risk by having this, as well as a home?
KUT News: Sorry, I’m just trying to fully understand that. So, then, how would that be a gain like you said?
Wilborn: Okay. Some of the homes that are being built out there and this is the uninsured and underinsured that I’m speaking of. Some didn’t receive as much money as others, but it’s of no matter to us at the long term recovery committee. We’re trying to help people get back close to where they were as much as we’re able to, as much as funds will allow. I don’t really know of any other way to answer that. We want them to get a home; not just a mobile trailer, but if that is all that they desire is a mobile trailer, well that is certainly acceptable.
KUT News: So, is there any way that they could get this new home without using what they have as collateral?
Wilborn: Probably so, yes. Each case is different. Some people have saved all their money. I see the mobile home as man, we had – that person – they needed a home. They spent the money on a homestead, but several months later as other homes are now being constructed, they’re like, the trailers not sufficient, I’d like to have a home. That’s where the working of that comes into play. But many things come into play. Will they help in their rebuilding? That’s very important cause we need the help. Do they have any additional funds because so many need help and what so little funds we have, we’re trying to – we have a committee forum and it’s called the unmet needs committee. It’s the last bit of change in the piggybank really, the long term recovery committee. Who’s going to need steps for their home? Who’s going to need ADA assistance with grab bars? Who’s going to have to have a special shower because of maybe they’re in a wheelchair? That’s more what the long term recovery committee is trying to do. Establish, give information to the community, bring assistance outside, interpret it as neighbors and make that happen.
KUT News: So, if I understand correctly then, for example, these homes that you’re helping to rebuild. These funds that you’ve collected, it’s going to go towards the rebuilding of the homes?
Wilborn: That’s correct.
KUT News: And these homes that are going to be built, are these recipients have to in anyway pay you back or pay anyone back?
Wilborn: No. If they had no money going into it and a home is built for them, there is a lien against their property where every two years that they stay in that home, money is given back to them. The reason that we do this is so if someone, if we build someone a home, we just don’t want them to turn around and sell it and move and take the money for it because they’re so many that we are trying to assist out there. There’s more than 200 people that are needed help.
KUT News: So, I don’t know what a lien is.
Wilborn: Okay. A lien is simply a documentation that like after they live there three years, they can sell it and get partial money. If they stay there six years, then they get a lot of that money of that house and after six years, the house belongs to them completely.
KUT News: I see. Okay, because I have talked to people who are not only unhappy about the collateral, but also unhappy about the lien so that’s why I was asking about that, but you’re saying that this is to ensure that the right people are getting the legitimate need.
Wilborn: That’s right. That’s right. And everyone is considered case by case. Literally, seriously, even prayfully, those are their neighbors. We live with them, we see each other, we want to keep our heads up high to know that we’ve helped and this is going to make us stronger for the next time, as well. We’ll know a lot more of what we’re doing and that’s why the community meeting tomorrow evening is to inform people of how that process works. If not, with so much information out there, it can be confusing.
KUT News: So, from what I’ve heard is that people who are insured, feel like they’re sort of getting the short end of the stick. To some people, some of this seems like it’s starting to feel like charity and that they don’t want charity; I guess they want help, but they don’t want it to feel like charity so I guess that’s the first thing that I would ask is how would you respond to that?
Wilborn: Okay. First off, anyone that feels that way, we obviously need to improve if we’re making things seem like it’s charity, but that is not our intentions. We’re trying to help the community recover as quickly as possible, maybe the rush of that, the wanting to help makes some feel that way. Whenever something is brought to my attention, first we’re going to help everyone help there, whether you’re underinsured, not insured or even insured, you’re important to the community. We need to bond with one another. This was a hit so to speak on all of us. This was a shock. This was unbelievable so those with insurance, we still reached out to try to help them recover some of their grounds, clean up their place, but as we’ve moved onto help those that did not have insurance or underinsurance, the insured have tend to felt left out. We’re working with them. We see that as a hitch that we need to work on and we have; we’ve been working on that. Seeing their needs, writing those needs down as this is long term recovery so as we go on, we want to make sure there is no partiality shown.
KUT News: So, you do obviously then have heard from people who feel like if they were insured, they’re sort of not getting the assistance that they feel like they should get?
Wilborn: They have received assistance from their insurance companies, from the community, but it is – I can definitely put myself in their shoes in a sense because if I had a house and it was being built and I had insurance, but I see 50 people on another property working, I want people working too at my house and so that’s a hard thing. It’s a hard thing.
KUT News: So, how are you guys planning to navigate that?
Wilborn: We’re continuing to focus on our greatest needs, people that have nothing and those with special needs and then we’re moving at the same time toward getting to those individuals that are insured, but maybe more of it is emotional need or spiritual need or they want to bond with the neighborhood. I have found that those that were insured are helping their neighbors out there that were not insured to bond so to speak and that’s a great spirit that we’ve had in the community and any letters that I receive or anyone publicly speaking about these things, I think there’s a little truth to everything that they say in those and we’re learning. We want to help.
KUT News: Because you know, from what I’m seeing here, some of these people who are insured, I guess, kind of feel left out in the cold like they’re not – they don’t actually feel like a part of the community because they don’t feel like it’s equal.
Wilborn: Well, like I said, it is a matter of prioritizing. If they had insurance, generally they had their water well fixed to their septic fixed by their insurance. Some – many have their homes already reconstructed, whereas others, we’re still fundraising, we’re still trying to help them with whatever we have volunteer wise, that’s kind of the point where we’re at right now so I think this is probably a normal spot though. I’m not discouraged about it. I think we’re just in between seasons of this. Every week is like a different snapshot.
KUT News: I assume you’ve never done this before.
Wilborn: That’s right.
KUT News: So, how has that been for you trying to navigate this and you know getting feedback from people that’s both positive and negative. I would be overwhelmed. I mean, how do you deal with that?
Wilborn: I think – well, I think some important things. My wife is very understanding and allows me to have the time to help others and she helps others. I think there’s a special grace that the Lord has given for such a time as this and he would anyone in my position. Grace, meaning normally they would probably want to pull their hair out, but there’s compassion, there’s a little bit of huh, that could be me and so yeah, I have empathy for them.
KUT News: And I know – I’ve seen all those Statesmen and they say in articles and I know that when we talked earlier, you said I want to keep it a low profile, but all these articles have come to you and recognized you cause you’re the head of this committee and you have done so much to help the community. Do you feel like a hero?
Wilborn: No. I feel very average. I feel like that there’s been many many people in the area that have done as much as I have done. Some, I’m sure, more. I’ve just kind of been about what I’m supposed to be – I feel like I can do. No, no hero.
KUT News: Do you think there are heroes within your community?
Wilborn: Oh yes, there are.
KUT News: And who are they?
Wilborn: They’re the firemen. They fought, they could have easily lost their life. We are talking homes versus people and, like I said, some were injured, there’s a lot of naturally I’m sure post-traumatic thoughts and things that are always occurring in their mind, what if they had done this? Those are the heroes’ right there that put their life on the line.
KUT News: Are you talking about the Pedernales Fire Department or the volunteers?
Wilborn: Any of those individuals. The Spicewood Fire Department, the Pedernales, the volunteers, I believe Oak Hill joined in, Lakeway Fire Department joined in, yeah, those are heroes.
KUT News: So, we’re seven months out. How many homes did you say are currently being built by the long term recovery committee?
Wilborn: Some owners have taken up with their FEMA money that they have and they’ve started construction on their homes. Volunteers are helping them to some degree, but we have 11 homes that we will start building, we’re hoping between March, April and May.
KUT News: And, this is not all you do, right? You’re also –
Wilborn: Oh, those are just the homes from the slab up. Many of them, they have burned homes, partially burned, many broken windows, barns, sheds, businesses lost. Yeah, we’re going to stay and help all of those individuals.
KUT News: Well, actually I was referring to you. This is not all you do, right? You also –
Wilborn: Yeah, right. I’m busy. I pastor the church. That takes a great deal of time. I also work outside the church because our church is small so I have to earn a living outside the church. I do small contracting jobs for extra income and yes, chairman of the long term recovery committee.
KUT News: So, can I ask you – should I call you Pastor Wilborn?
Wilborn: Tommy. Tommy’s fine.
KUT News: Tommy, do you guys have kids?
KUT News: How many kids do you have?
Wilborn: We have three children that are grown, 26 year old daughter, 23 year old son and a 21 year old son.
KUT News: So, has this – do they live in Spicewood?
Wilborn: No. Our daughter lives in Australia so she’s only been able to kind of see it on the Internet. Our middle son lives in Houston so he’s kind of been out of that environment of that and our other son attends university in Waxahachie. He’s come back on a few occasions and has seen things, but have not been involved because of school.
KUT News: So, I guess – has there been an effect on your family after this?
Wilborn: It’s personally changed me dramatically.
KUT News: How?
Wilborn: For the good. I know there’s a way to get help now. I know – I always knew the source was God, but I learned that if I didn’t have a store house such as a church that resources were very important. That much I have learned. Learned to connect with people that can bring help, people that are willing to help and because of this community, somebody has to ask for funds and help. That’s where you wouldn’t have noticed me a couple of years ago asking for money. It’s not me, but I have changed. There are people in need and, like I said, if it was me, I would sure hope someone would be there as an advocate to help me and that person is now me.
KUT News: I do have to ask about this divide above the river, below the river, I know we touched on it before. There are people who say that this is very much – it exists and that it’s a divide that has possibly even gotten more intense after the fire because the people who have been affected who don’t have as much; it just becomes all the more obvious that there are people who do have a lot and so there’s sort of been this almost split within the community.
Wilborn: I have not noticed any of that at all. The only talk that I’ve heard and as part of the community was when other communities after Spicewood caught fire, they seemed to get assistance very fast and so there was a continually overlooking our situation out there. That was frustrating When it comes to the Spicewood, Pedernales Spicewood area, that’s about as unified as you can get. The churches in Spicewood work with the churches in Pedernales. In fact, coming up on Good Friday, we’re having seven of the community pastors at the same place with the same people and the community each speaking for the community. There is very much unity out there. Neighbors help neighbors. It doesn’t matter if they’re from the Spicewood or the Pedernales area. That is not there.
KUT News: And so going back to how this has personally affected you. You mentioned being able now to ask for money. Do you see any other changes within yourself after this fire?
Wilborn: Yes, I have a lot more faith and the provision of God. I believe that really nothing is impossible. As I said earlier, I felt like God took a day off with me at times and said go here, do this, say that and it was just amazing that people care so much about others. That is just – as a minister, I see that to a degree, but in this disaster, it’s been overwhelming. People really are humanitarians. They will give – I’ve seen people give that did not have much or anything to give, but they’d loan anything that they had, take it. Trucks, trailers, I can repair things for y’all, let me do the repairs so yes, it’s changed me quite a bit. I look at life as messy, ugly at times, but such is life. There’s also beautiful moments, there’s new beginnings, there’s a new sunrise every morning, there’s two sides to that coin so I guess as I strategize or think about the situation, it takes the good with the bad to make it work, but we’re going to go forward no matter. We have to for the sake of the people.
KUT News: And I’m just wondering – this is probably a little bit of a personal question, but like, with all this going on, when you go to sleep at night, are you at peace, are you stressing out about everything you need to do the next day, do you wake up with like a million things, I’m just wondering cause if I were in that situation, I would be like constantly on and that’s exhausting.
Wilborn: Yes. I wouldn’t say I lose sleep because I think and work during the day so much, I sleep well at night, but sure, when I get up in the morning, that’s the first thing I think about. Evenings off, very few, but when we are, it’s hard not to think about the community and the next step, but I also learned something much earlier on in my life. I’m not a savior, I’m just a person. There is a savior. I make a lousy savior so I just do the best I can.
KUT News: Great. Where do you envision Spicewood heading in the next couple of coming months? Let’s say on the one year anniversary.
Wilborn: Those that completely lost their structures should have those structures back. Those that had lost their businesses and all their tools will have new tools. Many things FEMA did not cover, we’re going to see to it as neighbors and community that those things come back to them somehow, donated, maybe someone has and we’re already seeing this happen so I see us very healthy in one year. I see a celebration in one year, the amount of wins that we have. Some have been short term and then some have taken a lot longer, but in the end, it’s going to be accomplished. That’s just the energy and the spirit that is out there in the community.
KUT News: Anything that I didn’t touch on that you think is important to talk about really briefly before I let you go?
Wilborn: Just how important the website is becoming. For those that are wanting to volunteer, there is volunteer forms that they can download, a calendar that shows what’s happening and what we’re planning. There’s photos that show the people that are out there that have been working. It also gives descriptions of stories of individuals so I’m not just here representing a community. Soon, you will see videos on the website of the people themselves saying this is what happened, this is how it unfolded, this is how it ended up and they’re great stories and they’re real people.
KUT News: And, I’m sorry, I just want to make sure – did we talk about how the other areas like Bastrop and Steiner Ranch don’t have this type of committee, but it’s really important to form one?
Wilborn: Yes, we did talk about that. That’s important for – to receive grant monies, donations like I said when people would not donate maybe to some organizations, they would to something they know the money is going to go straight toward; they’re giving a benevolence to homes or wildfire survivors. I do – I am hearing it is difficult and no one wants to really form these – some think of it as a position. That won’t work very long. It’s too much work. Could you pay me for it? I’m not paid for it at all. Nobody in the Spicewood long term committee is paid, but you really couldn’t pay us to do it. It has to be from the heart. The money would not be enough to cover it. I would truly desire to see these other counties have these building blocks in place and start their recovery quicker and for the next time they have these things already in play, resource, manpower, the connections.
KUT News: And you said – how much of the donations that you guys collect go towards the residents in Spicewood?
Wilborn: 100% of it.
KUT News: And you can see that on the website?
Wilborn: That’s right, that’s right, we make everything public on the website.
KUT News: So, when these people come to you and they say, we – we’re getting changing stories, there are lots of unanswered questions, what is your response to that? Like I heard in Thursday’s meeting, what do you say to that?
Wilborn: Well, I think – I just sat immediately with them – like I said, they’re still kind of cut off out there. They’re living in temporary housing, they have power back on, but they don’t have Internet in all areas. The television just says snippets about Spicewood and recovery. It doesn’t give any details and that’s why we put together the website, but also that’s just the technology side. The hands on occurs the first and third Thursday of every month at Grace Outreach Family Church; that’s an open meeting for everybody to come that wants to hear what’s going on. If you have a question, if there’s a problem, if something is not going well for you, boy, let’s hear it. Let’s work toward that. And then, of course, our public meetings that we’re going to be starting as of Tuesday so I’m looking forward to that.
KUT News: So, my last question for you is right now, when you guys get into your car, whatever and drive around Spicewood, I recently went out there and there are still areas that are really burned and I obviously – you knew Spicewood before that. You used to drive around and like you said, everything was green and beautiful so when you’re driving around right now and you’re seeing the changes, does that fill you with despair or that does fill you with hope?
Wilborn: I think it challenges me. I didn’t like the disaster. I didn’t like what it did to the community. The hurt, the pain, the loss so when I look at that, I look at it as we’re coming back, we’re going to make it.
KUT News: Great.