FEMA denies disaster funds for West, Texas. Is that unusual?

West needs the disaster funds, say local and state politicians, but FEMA has turned down requests for non-natural disaster aid before. The decision is a new flash point between Texas and the Obama administration.

Tony Gutierrez/AP
An American flag planted by the curb in front of this home waves in the breeze as a home is demolished last month in West, Texas. FEMA has denied a request for disaster aid in West.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency refused a request for aid by West, Texas, to replace infrastructure destroyed in a deadly fertilizer plant explosion, in a move that drew criticism from Texas officials.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s office on Wednesday said FEMA rejected the request for more aid in a June 10 letter.

According to the letter, obtained by The Associated Press, FEMA said it reviewed the state's appeal to help but decided that the explosion "is not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration."

FEMA said the agency and the US Small Business Administration have approved more than $7 million in aid and low-interest loans to West residents impacted by the blast, which killed 15 people. FEMA also is paying 75 percent of the costs of debris removal and will reimburse the state and the municipality for the initial emergency response.

While the ruling means that residents won’t get as much assistance as is typically given to victims of tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, it isn’t unprecedented. FEMA has turned down that level of assistance for emergencies not stemming from natural disasters before, such as in 2010 when officials denied a request for millions in aid after a gas pipeline explosion in northern California.

Texas lawmakers aren’t happy with FEMA’s decision and several pledged to try and overturn it.

"I'm not sure what their definition of a major disaster is, but I know what I see over there and it's pretty bleak," West Mayor Tommy Muska said.

Mayor Muska said the rural community of 2,800 people cannot cover the costs of the repairs, and doesn't believe that the state will provide enough money on its own. He estimated the cost of those repairs at about $57 million, including $40 million to rebuild schools that were destroyed or damaged when the West Fertilizer Co. blew up in April.

The Dallas Morning News reports that the Insurance Council of Texas estimates that the West Fertilizer Co. explosion caused at least $100 million in damage, including $17 million in damage to the city’s roads, pipes, and sewage system.

Governor Perry criticized statements President Obama made at a memorial service for the 10 first responders killed in the April 17 blast.

"He said his administration would stand with them, ready to help," Perry said. "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."

At the service, Mr. Obama told town residents, “We’ll be there even after the cameras leave and after the attention turns elsewhere…. Your country will remain ever ready to help you recover and rebuild and reclaim your community.”

Rep. Bill Flores (R) of Texas, whose district includes West, told The Dallas Morning News he is “disappointed that we didn’t get it approved” and that the decision could mean a difference of more than $20 million in aid. He said he would work with Perry to try and get the decision reversed.

Officials can appeal FEMA’s decision within 30 days. Perry’s office said it would “assess what – if any – additional information federal officials might need to alter their decision,” writes The Dallas Morning News.

Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, called FEMA’s response “completely unacceptable” and vowed to work to get the decision reversed.

Authorities haven't publicly determined what caused the fire, saying it could have started from a spark from a golf cart, an electrical short, or could have been set intentionally, CNN reports. In May, authorities announced they had launched a criminal investigation into the case, though no one has been charged.

Texas has a recent history of disputes with the federal government, notes Reuters: “The rejection is the latest in a host of disputes between the Republican-led Texas state government and Obama's Democratic administration, including FEMA's denial of a Texas request for disaster assistance for the devastating 2011 drought and wildfires.

Other disputes have included the administration's blocking of federal funds for a Texas health program for poor women after the state passed a law barring Planned Parenthood, a provider of abortions, from participating in the program. In addition, the US Justice Department last year went to court to block a Texas law requiring identification for voting, saying it discriminated against minority voters.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report

 

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