Saturday, March 07, 2009

Bozeman Explosion and Fire, 61 hours later

After the floor session in the Montana Legislature this morning, I drove home to Bozeman and went straight downtown. The Bozeman Police Department has the scene of the terrible explosion and fire taped off and secured, but the fire still smolders--it will for days.

Amazingly, the very day of the blast, city officials were escorting business owners into their stores and restaurants, and businesses are open all around the site. The stores have been inspected and have certificates of exterior and interior inspection posted clearly on their windows.

Downtown was quiet in late afternoon today. The people downtown walked down the closed Main Street (just at the 200 block) to see the site of the explosion.

I am amazed and honored that our city building inspectors and city officials have responded so very quickly to keep our precious center of commerce operating.

We have had National Guard troops helping us for two days, and they returned home today. Bozeman Police are securing the site, and for all the firefighters, police, city workers, National Guard troops, everyone, the businesses have posted signs of thanks and offers of free vittles for the workers. There have been innumerable offers of help: food, shelter, people, resources. This is the town that's Bozeman.

The site is smoldering and a recovery and investigation effort is underway. For the blast radius of a block or so, no one is allowed in. There is glass and building material and debris on the street and on the roofs and in the trees of the blocks and businesses surrounding the site. Part of the facade of the Rockin' R remains, as does part of the American Legion building, but the debris on site is in a deep and high pile with a daunting layer of ice on the cars, street, utility lines, and detritus.

The weather on Thursday was bad. There were six inches of heavy icy snow on the street and sidewalks, which kept a lot of people from getting to work on time. There's precious little that's a blessing about this, but the fact that no more than one person remains unaccounted for, and no one was injured in the blast or in the emergency response, is simply amazing. The potential for a much more dire outcome was great.

Today, temperatures in the morning were downright crisp: around 8 degrees, in Bozeman and in Helena. After the morning floor session of the House of Representatives, I drove home. By that time, early afternoon, it was in the mid-30s, so the street and scene melted off a bit. There's subzero weather coming in the next day or so.

The perimeters around the scene have been progressively moved back toward the block, and people can access businesses and patronize the downtown, and they will. There have already been great efforts to remove materials from the surrounding area. I know there's frustration for a few businesses that have much more to do to recover; people want to get into buildings and recover what they can, but it's been just 61 hours since the blast, the fire's still burning, structures are compromised, and it isn't safe.

Bozeman, Gallatin County, Bozeman Fire Department and fire districts all around the area, our National Guard, our state agencies, and federal forces are coordinated in a continuing response. I've been in close contact with the governor's office since the day of the blast, and for displaced workers, there will be accelerated unemployment benefits and easier applications; we recognize people won't have pay stubs to present because many of these businesses don't have their computers or records anymore.

The state and Small Business Administration are working toward expedited loans. Businesses who have unreimbursed, uninsured losses can apply for low-interest loans, no higher than 4% interest rate; I'll know more about how many businesses will form that group, what the term and benefits of the loans will be, next week. Be assured I'll stay at the front of this to make sure we recover well, with all the resources we need at the ready.









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