Why did FEMA deny new funding after Texas fertilizer plant explosion?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency this month denied a request for millions of dollars in additional aid to help West, Tex., recover from an April 17 fertilizer-plant explosion that killed 15 people and decimated some 37 blocks of homes, schools and businesses.

President Obama suggested during an April 25 memorial that the federal government would support Texas’s recovery efforts, but critics say the president ultimately turned his back on the state.

“We’ll be there even after the cameras leave and after the attention turns elsewhere,” Obama said during the memorial. “Your country will remain ever ready to help you recover and rebuild and reclaim your community.”

A house fire after a nearby fertilizer facility exploded in West, Tex. (Rod Aydelotte/AP)
A house fire after a nearby fertilizer facility exploded in West, Tex. (Rod Aydelotte/AP)

Despite those remarks from the president, FEMA said in a letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) this month that the plant explosion “is not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration.” The agency concluded that “the remaining costs for permanent work is within the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.”

FEMA, which has said it still has nearly $12 billion in its disaster-relief fund after the recent Oklahoma tornados, halted financial assistance for the West recovery at about $16 million. That support came largely in the form of grants and low- to no-interest loans from both FEMA and the Small Business Administration, as well as from funding to help with the emergency response and debris removal.

“While President Obama has turned his back on Texas and gone against his word, we will continue to take care of our neighbors,” said state Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, in a statement.

Dallas Morning News writer Tod Robberson said the decision “stinks” of partisan politics. He suggested it might have something to do with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) moving less in lock-step with the Obama administration after the West explosion than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) did after Hurricane Sandy.

Perry rejected the notion that greater regulation would have prevented the plant explosion, and West Mayor Tommy Muska seemed to concur with that assessment when he described such ideas as “Monday morning quarterbacking,” according to a New York Times article.

Robberson’s editorial argues that per-capita damage should matter more than disaster size. The city of West estimated that the cost to repair its roads, water and sewage lines could reach $17 million, in addition to the $100 million the school system projected it would need to deal with a middle school that was leveled, according to media reports.

The state of Texas has requested $34.4 million for uninsured losses, including money to rebuild the school. That’s all less than the 75 percent of overall costs that FEMA generally provides to help local governments repair after disasters.

Nonetheless, the agency contends that Texas has not proven a need for additional support.

“Texas’ request for Stafford Act Major Disaster Declaration was denied because there was no evidence presented that the State of Texas lacked the fiscal resources to address the remaining $17 million in estimated uninsured public infrastructure restoration costs arising from the tragic explosion in West,” according to a statement from FEMA officials.

The decision to deny additional aid was not totally unusual. In 2010, officials rejected a request for millions of dollars after a gas-pipeline explosion ravaged a Northern California neighborhood.

FEMA is more inclined to deny assistance when insurance pay-outs are likely to cover a substantial portion of the damage, according to Drexel University professor Scott Gabriel Knowles, who specializes in disaster-preparedness issues. By law, the agency cannot duplicate costs handled by private insurers, Knowles said.

Knowles contends that oversight doesn’t necessarily have to come from the government if insurance requirements are strong. “With larger policies, there would have been more oversight from the insurance industry to make sure their risks were well-managed,” he said.

Post Wonkblog writer Brad Plumer has explored the issue of regulation and the Texas explosion in greater detail. For additional information, view the article.

(Correction: A previous version of this article stated that FEMA halted aid to West, Texas at $7 million, but the agency said its support including funding from the president’s emergency declaration will amount to an estimated $16 million. The article has been updated with that information.)

For more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed, friend his Facebook page or e-mail josh.hicks@washpost.comE-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Josh Hicks | June 17, 2013