DALLAS -- The federal government will finance rebuilding the blast-damaged schools and streets in West, Texas, with a declaration that the central Texas city is a major disaster area.
The decision announced Friday provides for a 75% reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the rebuilding efforts by the small town north of Waco and West Independent School District.
President Obama’s declaration reversed FEMA’s June ruling that the state had sufficient resources to fund the reconstruction of schools, streets, and utility lines destroyed and damaged in an April 17 fertilizer plant explosion.
The blast killed 15 people and wiped out a portion of the small town of 2,800, with hundreds of buildings leveled or severely damaged.
The McLennan County Appraisal District estimated the disaster could result in a loss of $40 million in taxable property value.
West Mayor Tommy Muska said he was playing golf on Friday afternoon and missed the first two telephone calls from President Obama about the reversal. The two officials finally connected on the president’s third attempt.
“You can’t call him back,” Muska said. “His phone only goes one way.”
Muska said he was relieved and happy to hear of the president’s decision, which had not expected so soon after the initial denial.
“I am looking forward to getting our projects lined up and assessed, and money coming from them,” he said.
Shortly after Obama’s announcement, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he would release the first $3.5 million payment to West from a promised $10 million in aid.
The FEMA funds will be used to replace the damaged utility lines, Muska said, with the state aid helping to rebuild streets and water supply facilities.
The cost of restoring the damaged municipal infrastructure in the blast area is estimated at $17 million.
“FEMA is not the easiest people in the world to work with,” Muska said. “They have their procedures. We will work with their procedures to the letter of the law.”
The explosion damaged three of the four schools operated by West Independent School District.
Superintendent Marty Crawford praised President Obama, Perry, and U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Waco, for reversing the decision by FEMA Director Craig Fugate that the damage was not beyond the state’s capabilities.
“Those three individuals were really concerned about the citizens and the school children of West,” Crawford said. “We are very appreciative of that."
The school district said it could cost up to $100 million to rebuild or replace the damaged schools.
A facilities report recommended replacing the devastated West High School and an intermediate school. Portions of the damaged middle school can be salvaged, but classroom areas must be razed and rebuilt.
The West district initially asked for $57 million from FEMA for the effort.
Perry said the state’s successful appeal of the initial disapproval was “great and welcome news” to the people of West.
“This, along with the disaster relief funding provided by the Texas Legislature, will help this community rebuild their infrastructure, school district, and public works as quickly as possible,” Perry said.
Moody's Investors Service downgraded West Independent School District's general obligation rating to Baa1 from A1 with a negative outlook after the FEMA denial. The rating action affects $318,000 in rated debt. The district also has outstanding $12.1 million of GO debt and $965,000 of limited tax debt that is not rated.
Moody's also downgraded the city’s $385,000 of rated GO debt to Baa2 from Baa1, with a negative outlook. West also has $2.5 million of unrated limited tax GO debt.
West Independent School District’s credit is rated A by Standard & Poor’s but enhanced to triple-A with coverage by the state Permanent School Fund. Standard & Poor’s does not rate the city’s debt.