Students are heading back to school in West, Texas today. Many of them will be going back to temporary classrooms. That’s because April’s deadly explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant destroyed most of the city’s public schools, along with hundreds of homes.
As you drive down North Reagan Street, an area known to locals now simply as “Zone Three,” located just a few hundred yards from the site of the West Fertilizer Plant explosion, you see vacant lots where an apartment complex, a nursing home and the West Intermediate School once stood.
"The Intermediate School was actually destroyed at the time of the blast," said West ISD Superintendent Marty Crawford. "It subsequently caught fire and burned to the ground and melted that night."
The school housed the town’s fourth and fifth graders. All that remains of the building today are the three pillars of the front entrance. They stand as a haunting reminder of what happened last April. Three of West’s four public schools were damaged beyond repair when the fertilizer plant exploded.
A few blocks from the Intermediate School is West High School. From the outside, it looks like it weathered the blast pretty well. But Crawford says when you looks closer, that's not the case.
"The brick exterior while it may look fine you know you start talking about the steel and the infrastructure of the facility that took the brunt of the energy and that’s what’s compromised," Crawford said. "It’s sad because it’s a beautiful facility but at the same time it is unsafe to put school children and teachers in."
The damage is evident when you get inside the school. Down a dark hallway, you pass rows of empty lockers and disheveled classrooms, frozen in time.
The blast caused the ceiling in the school cafeteria to crinkle like an accordion. The roof on the school gymnasium has completely collapsed.
"You had ceilings down everywhere. You had lights down everywhere," said Crawford.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently approved a major disaster declaration for West, freeing up federal money to help rebuild critical infrastructure, including schools.
But if people in West decide not to rebuild homes in the community, that could pose a longer-term funding problem for the district.
"We’re funded by a variety of different ways through the state and they look at your valuation of your property. What are those homes worth?" said Crawford. "You’re also looking at enrollment."
Without knowing yet just how many students will be coming back to school in West, Crawford is understandably concerned.
"If you did look at a decrease in enrollment which means that’s a decrease in your budget, which means that we would not be able to carry as many employees as we carry now," he said.
More than 200 people work for West ISD, making it the city's largest employer. Staff reductions, Crawford said, could have a serious impact on the local economy.
"We’re going to do our diligence in trying to get our school facilities, the brick and mortar facilities up and running as quickly as possible so that that confidence is restored locally in our community," he said.
But some of West's older residents have already relocated, and some have decided they're not coming back.
"Being that we’ve lost our home, we felt this was the opportune time to make that move, to retire and play with grandchildren," said Donald Cernosek, a local insurance agent who grew up in West. Now he's planning to move to Bryan, to be closer to his kids and grandkids. "It’s going to be a very hard move for us. We’ve been here our whole lives. But hey we’re just 90 miles down the road."
Cernosek and some others may be moving on, but there are a few residents who are already starting to rebuild.
"I know there are people concerned about what’s going to happen to the school district and the city as a whole with the tax base but there are people that are gonna stay," said Stephanie Kurcera, who's family was the first to rebuild their home in Zone Three, the area most severely damaged by the blast.
"If more people get moving into the rebuilding process, I think it will give others that hope and that reassurance that our city will come back because right now there are still some people that are doubtful that will happen," Kucera said. "We had to get our lives going forward. We knew we had to get things back to normal for our kids."
The new normal will mean that many of the district's 1,400 students will be going to class in temporary buildings, at least for the foreseeable future.
Kucera's son, Jackson, who starts his senior year at West High School today, isn't fazed.
"A school is a school," Jackson Kucera said. "You gotta make the best of it. And I think that’s what we’re gonna do."
Kucera and his family moved into their new home just three weeks ago.
"The best part about it was waking up to the train the next morning and kind of just going outside and knowing that you’re home and you’re here to stay," Kucera said.