Texas mayor: Plant explosion changed how I think about government aid

By David Ferguson
Friday, October 4, 2013 11:26 EDT
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Explosion at fertilizer plant in West, Texas
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The mayor of a Texas town devastated by a fertilizer plant explosion told the Dallas Morning News that the disaster has changed his views on the state’s laissez-faire view of business regulation. Watching his townspeople struggle to hew their lives back together in the six months since the explosion ripped apart the town of West, has given Mayor Tommy Muska a new perspective on government aid.

“I don’t want government help…but I’m also for the middle-class Joe that just kind of needs a little bit of help,” Muska said. “I don’t know, maybe that’s an oxymoron.”

Federal and state agencies have provided the town with funds to rebuild the roads, schools and public buildings that were flattened in the blasts that shook the town on April 17, when a fire at the West Fertilizer plant set off a series of explosions. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), however, has only awarded a total of $840,000 to the townspeople whose homes and businesses were lost in the accident.

Officials said in a press conference on Thursday that the town needs an estimated $30 million to rebuild to pre-blast levels of stability and economic viability, but thanks to a lackluster state emergency response system and — in the words of the Morning News — “a hands-off Texas government that emphasizes personal responsibility,” that money simply isn’t available.

“There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” said disaster response expert Frannie Edwards, who is a professor at San Jose State University. “Nobody is going to come with a check to make you whole.”

After a disaster FEMA helps provide victims with shelter and food and some basic necessities like hotel rooms and maybe a bed that they can keep. Beyond that, however, survivors must rely on whatever savings they have, insurance and a patchwork of state and local agencies, as well as some federal grants and loans. There is no single government agency dedicated to aiding disaster survivors.

“The expectation is that you have some capability to finance some of your own losses,” Edwards explained.

Nearly half of the households affected by the West explosion were uninsured or underinsured. These are the people who FEMA is charged with aiding, but of the 800 families in West who have applied for aid, fewer than 250 were approved to receive it.

A FEMA spokesperson told the Morning News that many of the disqualified applicants had some insurance. Of the 250 families that applied, only four have received the maximum grant of $39,900. One family’s total amount of government aid was a check for $80.

The federal government makes low-interest loans available to some citizens via the Small Business Administration, but they are loans, not grants, and must ultimately be paid back.

Many residents are hoping to fare better when charity groups begin to distribute the $3.9 million they have received in donations for the citizens of West. That process could begin as early as next week.

David Ferguson
David Ferguson
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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