It has been almost eleven months since a deadly ammonium nitrate explosion and fire at a fertilizer plant changed life forever for the 2,800-plus residents of West, Texas.
The disaster created such an enormous blast that it caused a 93 foot-wide, 10 foot deep crater, flattened the plant and devastated 37 square blocks of homes, public buildings, a high school and a nursing home, killing 15 people and injuring nearly 200 others.
The blast also knocked out windows at other local schools and businesses, and caused catastrophic damage to the community's infrastructure. Also heavily damaged was a nursing home that required a rescue operation to remove its many elderly residents from the damaged building.
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After the dust settled, officials were devastated by the widespread destruction.
With the one-year anniversary of the tragedy approaching, many are asking what has been done to help the community recover from the death and destruction, and what, if anything, have lawmakers and state officials done to ensure there isn't another disastrous incident in another unsuspecting Texas town.
While fire investigators still struggle to identify the cause of the blaze that ignited the ammonium nitrate stored at the plant, questions continue to surface about why the community was apparently ill prepared for such an emergency. Others are asking why the state and other safety authorities haven't put forward an effort to establish policies and legislation, if needed, to prevent another life-altering disaster.
Life is different
Meanwhile, amid the questions and ongoing investigation, life goes on in West, though it is a life very different than the pre-blast days.
West came into existence not long after the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad set aside a town site in 1881 while expanded tracks from Waco to Hillsboro. West was founded and quickly grew with the influx of Czech immigrants. The settlers came to purchase land and farm in the new world. They also opened businesses, sharing their European culture with surrounding communities. To this day many of the older residents of West still speak Czech to their neighbors.
With a reputation for good work ethic, the laid-back residents of this rural Texas town are often described as hard working and resilient. In spit of it, no one expected the massive tragedy that struck last spring.
Days following the deadly explosion, residents who rarely asked for help of any kind were forced to seek aid from anyone who could spare a little time or money or perhaps an ambulance or fire truck or equipment to help clean up the massive piles of debris.
Help came quickly.
State and federal officials arrived just hours after the fire started and the subsequent explosion flattened much of the community. Emergency and rescue workers from across Central Texas flocked to the scene. Residents and emergency workers evacuated schools, a nursing home and hundreds of houses across a wide area.
It wasn't long before FEMA arrived and started providing additional help, like temporary housing for those who were displaced. Medical professionals and technicians were assigned to local clinics and treatment centers and fire officials spent countless man hours attempting to control the fire, clean up the aftermath and start the process of trying to figure out what went wrong.
Successes and Failures
Soon other types of aid arrived—containers of food and bottled water, clothes that had been donated and special funds were established to help disaster victims. A special non-profit organization was established to coordinate donations and to distribute to local residents in need. Just days later President Obama and Governor Rick Perry came to West to honor the emergency workers who had lost their lives in the terrible disaster.
Texas may be a large state, but even distant neighbors often respond when need arises. That was the case for the Texas Rangers baseball club that became involved in fund raising activities. In all, the Rangers were directly responsible for donating $50,000 to the community, but also made special appearances in the city and collected an additional $40,000 plus in gift cards and other essential supplies and materials. They were also instrumental in getting Major League Baseball (MLB) to donate an additional $100,000 for relief efforts. The act was contagious, and soon others joined in.
The special foundation that was set up had managed to collect some $3.6 million to help local residents who, in many cases, lost every thing they owned. The process of doling out the relief funds has been tedious and requires a great deal of paperwork, but progress continues. More and more local residents adversely affected by the disaster are getting relief as these funds continue to be distributed nearly a year after the disaster struck.
But bad news came with the good. Not long after the tragedy, FEMA denied a request for additional money to the town. While the Texas Legislature granted $2 million in support from the state's Rainy Day Fund, without FEMA funds, hope for recovery had been diminished.
In a letter to Gov. Rick Perry explaining the decision, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said the damage from the massive explosion was “not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration,” and further clarified that FEMA's mission was to help communities when local and state resources were unavailable to handle the magnitude of the problem.
Fortunately, FEMA had already authorized over $2.5 million in "Category B" federal emergency funding, and FEMA also helped pay for 75 percent of debris removal costs. A presidential disaster declaration would have made additional funding available to help the city rebuild its damaged or destroyed infrastructure.
Finally, the Administration reversed its decision after the State of Texas appealed, and FEMA is now ushering in additional funds, including $20 million to rebuild several of the community's public schools. Since last April, students have been meeting in temporary classrooms shipped in until schools can be rebuilt, or some were bussed to adjacent counties to their education.
The West Independent School District was covered by insurance, but Superintendent Marty Crawford estimated two of the four campuses suffered as much as $53 million in damage. While the district's insurance company has paid out more than $30 million so far, there simply was not enough money to rebuild all of the facilities without federal help.
Part of the district and local government's dilemma has been that with so many homes and property damaged by the blast, local tax revenues have fallen far below what was expected before the disaster. With businesses and homes destroyed, property values have been reappraised or suspended in some cases, further complicating the business of rebuilding the community's infrastructure.
Local officials say while the tragedy of the plant explosion lives on in their minds they are thankful for the flood of support that has helped them save their town. The tragedy has been offset by an out-pouring of response and kindness exhibited by friends, family, strangers, baseball teams, wholesale grocers, government officials, good neighbors, churches, social organizations and others.
But in spite of the help, some are wondering if the fate suffered by West could be repeated at another Texas town. Corporate and political posturing has been taking place since the explosion, and some contend it has helped state and safety officials to establish who or what was to blame. Some are suggesting that a better safety standard required by state officials, including regular inspections, may have helped West to avoid the disaster.
Some believe local officials and emergency responders may not have had the knowledge or training to deal with hazardous material stored at the plant, or how much of a risk it posed on any given day. McLennan County emergency coordinator Frank Patterson said that while county officials knew about the storage of ammonium nitrate at the plant, they didn't have a clue how the amount fluctuated from week to week or even day to day, and they had not been advised of the risk it presented to residents of West and the county-at-large.
The local fire department reports that they had been called to the plant numerous times for suspected leaks on valves, but no one seemed to know of the actual danger associated with the vast amounts of hazardous materials stored at the plant. Highly pressurized ammonia can become a potentially lethal gas if it leaks and, as discovered, can be the cause of a massive build up and explosion.
State action needed
Some fault the State of Texas for a lack of safety regulations and programs related to the storage and use of chemical materials, further suggesting that it is the result of a state government that has long been "corporate friendly" when it comes to minimizing the cost of doing business within the state. Such policy, they say, has caused friction between
Texas officials and safety officials at the federal Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA).
As further evidence of their suspicions, some local officials are asking why, nearly a year after the incident, the state has yet to properly address the safety hazards related to the storage of ammonium nitrate statewide. Some also accuse Texas of failing to take steps toward adopting a new statewide fire code, which, if one had been revised and in place, may have lowered the risk at the West Fertilizer Plant. They also want to know why the state still does not require facilities that stockpile such materials to carry liability insurance to protect their neighbors.
If any lesson has been learned from the tragedy at West, it may be that local communities need to be aware that in the end, they must shoulder the burden and responsibility of regulating industries within their jurisdiction that pose a threat or undue risks to the public's welfare.
For the residents of West, it is a lesson that has come with a major price tag.