West, Texas Explosion: Why is FEMA Denying Extra Emergency Funds?

Leaders in West, Texas and beyond are pledging to reverse the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) denial of additional aid to help rebuild the small Texas town still recovering from a fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people and destroyed homes and schools.

In a letter obtained by the Associated Press, FEMA said they turned down the state's appeal for more funding because the explosion "is not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration."

This seems contrary to a promise made to the town by President Obama when he visited the town after the April 17 blast. 

"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 explosion. "Your country will remain ever ready to help you recover and rebuild and reclaim your community."

"Ever ready" evidently means they are leaving the town strapped with a $17 million bill for damage to the city's roads, pipes, and sewage systems that neither the state, the feds or insurance will pay for. And while this is unfortunate, it is not surprising. 

To be fair, FEMA has paid for quite a lot already. The agency and the U.S. Small Business Administration have approved more than $7 million in aid and low-interest loans to West residents affected by the explosion. They are also reimbursing the costs of the initial emergency response and covering 75% of the cost for debris removal. The money that was denied as of Wednesday fell under the "major disaster declaration," which would have given more money to help West rebuild and for individual aid such as crisis counseling.

This is also not a problem unique to West. FEMA also denied funds after a 2010 gas line explosion in San Bruno, Calif. that injured dozens and killed four. And the reasons are similar. According to a spokesperson for FEMA, the funds were denied because insurance was already paying and because they believed the state or municipality could cover the cost.

Whether it's a realistic assumption that West can cover the cost or that the state will cover the cost is up in the air. The mayor of West, Tommy Muska, says FEMA is wrong. 

"We don't have the money to go out and borrow the money. We don't have the means to pay that note back," Muska told the Washington Post. "There’s got to be some public assistance."

So how much money are we talking? They are certainly on their own for the $17 million bill for infrastructure, and may be responsible for the $40 million it will cost to rebuild a school completely flattened by the blast. Muska doubts that anything the state can provide will be enough.

Muska and state lawmakers will continue to push FEMA to reverse its decision, but such a reversal seems unlikely. In the meantime, the town of 2,800 is still reeling from the explosion and this will continue to delay a return to normalcy.