By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The Obama Administration on Friday declared the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in the central Texas community of West in April to be a major disaster, approving the use of wider federal funding to help the town rebuild.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency declined to issue a disaster declaration in June on the grounds that state resources were adequate to help the community of 2,800 rebuild. But FEMA now says it will make federal funding "available to state and eligible local governments and certain private non profit organizations for emergency work," as well as to repair or replace public facilities damaged by the explosion.
"The approval of the state's appeal for a major disaster declaration is great and welcome news for the people of West," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement.
In a letter to President Obama appealing the denial of disaster funding, Perry said: "The long term viability of this small Texas city is dependent on your decision."
Disaster declarations are generally issued in response to natural catastrophes such as storms or floods that affect a wide area.
The FEMA decision means the city of West will qualify for federal funding to help public works entities get rebuilt, Josh Havens, Perry's deputy press secretary, told Reuters. He says eligible projects will include public buildings, roads and school facilities.
A fire and resulting ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant on the evening of April 17 killed 15 people, injured more than 160, and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes, businesses and public buildings in the community north of Waco.
Friday's announcement is "wonderful" news for Marty Crawford. The superintendent of the West Independent School District estimates his buildings suffered as much as $60 million in damage in the explosion. Most of the school buildings were located within 800 yards of the blast site.
"This proves to me that the federal and state governments are standing arm in arm with our community in our long road to recovery," Crawford told Reuters.
He said much of the tax base that supports the school district of 1,450 students was destroyed in the explosion, making it far more difficult to raise the funds needed to repair and replace school buildings.
"The challenge of raising the property tax rate would have been impossible," Crawford said. The McLennan County Tax Appraisal District estimated that the community's property tax base lost $40 million, and the governor's office says the city and the school district's credit rating has been downgraded because of the explosion's impact on property values.
Despite the initial denial of a Presidential disaster declaration, FEMA and other federal agencies have been active in helping the community. Crawford said $2.75 million in so-called "Category B" federal emergency funding has been used, for example, to help obtain the temporary buildings that will house his district's students for as long as three years.
FEMA funding also helped pay for 75 percent of the debris removal costs and helped reimburse the cost of the emergency response, according to figures provided by the governor's office.
Havens says assistance through FEMA's "Individuals and Households Program" was also provided to help West residents deal with the immediate aftermath of the explosion. The recently completed session of the Texas Legislature also provided disaster assistance to West.
FEMA also said Friday's disaster declaration will allow it to share the costs of "hazard mitigation measures" to prevent similar fertilizer plant disasters across the state.
The declaration comes one day after Obama signed an executive order calling on government agencies to study tougher safety regulations for chemical storage facilities.
(Reporting by Jim Forsyth; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Andre Grenon)