West, Texas Explosion: It Shows How Effective Feds Can Be in Disaster Response

This past week has been a real test for our country. It started on Monday with the Boston Marathon bombings, which left three dead and is still an ongoing case as I write this. On Wednesday evening, there was a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. In the early hours of Friday morning, the city of Boston went into lockdown due to the dramatic showdown with the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, who turned out to be Chechen terrorists. One has been killed, and one is in custody.

President Obama has been briefed by FBI Director Robert Mueller and is meeting with his top national security advisors, being in close contact with Governor Deval Patrick and other state and local officials monitoring the situation. This happens the day after he gave a heartfelt speech at the memorial for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings yesterday, which has earned him the praise of his former rival in last year's presidential election, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. 

It seems that the government on the state, local, and federal levels are deploying their best resources and efforts into ensuring that this crisis is resolved and justice is ultimately served. I do not believe we can accurately speculate on what is happening in Boston and assess the federal government's handling of it until it is resolved and all the facts are known. The plant explosion in Texas, however, offers a concise illustration of the federal government's effectiveness in crisis management coupled with room for improvement in crisis prevention.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina served as the hallmark example of how to fumble a government response to a disaster, and since then the federal government to much success has drawn lessons from Katrina and made improving the science of crisis management its primary focus. The response by the federal government to the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas has mirrored the responses to some of our country’s deadliest disasters and acts of terrorism. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has sent a 20-member national response team comprised of chemists, forensics specialists and experts in explosives to evaluate the scene, as had been done in response to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. The Chemical Safety Board, which investigates chemical disasters, has also deployed a team. President Obama has been in contact with Texas Governor Rick Perry and pledged that any federal resources needed to aide in response and recovery efforts will be deployed, working through FEMA and other agencies.

However, this is the same fertilizer plant that has had a history of safety violations cited by OSHA. OSHA stated that because the plant did not produce explosives and had no major accidents prior, it was not included in its National Emphasis Plan. The EPA also did not rate it as a major risk. Hopefully the lessons drawn from the tragedy in Texas will serve as an incentive to focus more on crisis prevention, which can save lives in the future.