The Dallas Morning News: Texas leaders rush to appeal FEMA's denial of more aid to West06/12/13
By SARAH MERVOSH and TODD J. GILLMAN
Officials across Texas are scrambling to reverse the federal government’s decision not to free up more funds to help rebuild this town, where a fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 and destroyed schools and homes.
From West City Hall to the governor’s office, officials expressed disappointment Wednesday after the Federal Emergency Management Agency refused to provide funds that would have gone toward restoring schools and city infrastructure.
“They have kind of cast us to the side,” West Mayor Tommy Muska said.
President Barack Obama previously assured West residents that his administration would support them.
“We’ll be there even after the cameras leave and after the attention turns elsewhere,” Obama said at a memorial for first responders killed in the April 17 blast. “Your country will remain ever ready to help you recover and rebuild and reclaim your community.”
Gov. Rick Perry hasn’t forgotten Obama’s promise and hopes the president will step in to make sure West gets the help it needs.
“We anticipate the president will hold true to his word and help us work with FEMA to ensure much needed assistance reaches the community of West,” Perry said in a public statement Wednesday.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called FEMA’s response “completely unacceptable” and was one of several lawmakers who vowed to work to get the decision reversed.
Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, whose district includes West, said it was hard to believe the federal government would deny aid in the face of so much devastation and so many people killed — including a dozen first responders.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t get it approved,” he said, adding that he’ll work with Perry to get the decision reversed.
The decision could mean a difference of more than $20 million in aid, Flores said.
Factors in decision
FEMA considers several factors when deciding whether to declare a major disaster, including insurance coverage. By law, the agency can’t duplicate benefits provided by insurance companies or other federal agencies.
In a letter to Perry dated Monday, FEMA said the impact of the explosion wasn’t severe enough to warrant a major disaster declaration.
The explosion — equivalent in power to about 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT blowing up — damaged three schools and hundreds of homes, as well as city roads and pipes. The Insurance Council of Texas estimated that total damage in the town would top $100 million.
Individual residents, however, are getting help from the federal government. So far, survivors in West have received more than $7 million in grants and low-interest loans. FEMA also agreed to help cover the cost of debris removal and the initial emergency response, such as search and rescue.
But FEMA decided that West, the county and the state could handle paying for the rest, according to the letter.
Muska, the mayor, disagreed. For weeks, he’d been making noise, saying the city “desperately” needed federal funds. Now he’s looking at $17 million in damage to the city’s roads, pipes and sewage system that the feds won’t pay for, nor will insurance.
School district’s toll
West Independent School District faces an even larger damage estimate after three of its four schools were destroyed or damaged in the blast. It could cost about $86 million to $96 million to rebuild the schools and create temporary classrooms for the meantime. Insurance will cover about two-thirds of that, Superintendent Marty Crawford said.
Crawford said he’s hopeful that assistance will come through.
“In baseball terms, it’s like having two strikes on you and you keep fouling balls off,” he said. “As long as you don’t get that third strike on you, you still have a chance to reach base.”
It’s not unusual for FEMA to turn down assistance for man-made disasters. In 2010, officials denied a request for millions in aid after a gas pipeline explosion consumed a Northern California neighborhood.
Still, local officials hope the state will appeal FEMA’s decision, which it can do within 30 days of the letter. Perry’s office said it would assess what — if any — additional information federal officials might need to alter their decision.
If nothing changes, West still has funding from the state coming its way — probably about $10 million, McLennan County Commissioner Will Jones said. Loans and grants are also an option, he said.
“There are still avenues out there, but this funding from FEMA would have gone a long way to getting the town back,” Jones said.
As more houses were demolished Wednesday, West was overrun with wooden stars painted by children. Some were decorated with the message “West Strong,” others with prayers.
Meanwhile, some officials raised the possibility that FEMA’s decision could have been politically motivated.
“I hope it’s not a blue-red thing,” Muska said.
Two years ago, Perry and other top GOP leaders accused the Obama administration of playing politics when FEMA refused to issue a major disaster declaration after wildfires burned more than 2.2 million acres and 400 homes, mostly in Central Texas.
At the time, FEMA director Craig Fugate denied any partisanship in that decision, arguing — as FEMA does now — that Texas had the wherewithal to cope with only limited federal aid.
But that doesn’t sit well with Jones, the county commissioner.
“It’s kind of a snub on Texas,” he said.
Cornyn, an outspoken critic of the Obama administration, wasn’t ready to allege a political motive yet. But he said, “If it is people playing politics … then you’ll be hearing from me.”
Sarah Mervosh reported from West and Todd J. Gillman reported from Washington, D.C. Christy Hoppe of the Austin Bureau contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.
BY THE NUMBERS: Damage adds up
The Insurance Council of Texas estimated that the West Fertilizer Co. explosion caused at least $100 million in damage.
In West: $17 million in damage to the city’s roads, pipes and sewage system
In West ISD: It could cost $86 million to $96 million to rebuild schools and create temporary classrooms until schools are rebuilt. Insurance is expected to cover about two-thirds of that amount.
775 residents have registered with FEMA for assistance, and FEMA and the Small Business Administration have provided more than $7 million in disaster assistance grants and low-interest disaster loans for eligible individuals and families.
FEMA agreed to cover 75 percent of the state’s costs for debris removal and emergency protective measures.
$10 million in state funding for disaster aid is expected, and loans and grants are also an option.
Texas officials in Austin and Washington vowed Wednesday to try to reverse the FEMA decision. The state has 30 days to appeal.
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