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FEMA Denies More Aid to West, Texas and San Bruno, California

June 13, 2013

News that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had denied additional disaster aid to the town of West, Texas has Lone Star State leaders crying foul. President Obama, they charge, "used West, Texas as a photo op" and "turned his back on Texas and gone against his word." But while their disappointment is understandable, it's also more than a little ironic. After all, it was Governor Rick Perry who claimed "we can take care of ourselves" as federal stimulus money was helping him balance the state's budget two years ago. More importantly, when a neighborhood of San Bruno, California was flattened by its own industrial accident in 2010, FEMA delivered the same response.

Nevertheless, Texas Senator John Cornyn warned, "If it is people playing politics ... then you'll be hearing from me." As it turns out, neither his worry nor grandstanding are required. As the Dallas Morning News reported:

FEMA considers several factors when deciding whether to declare a major disaster, including insurance coverage. By law, the agency can't duplicate benefits provided by insurance companies or other federal agencies.
In a letter to Perry dated Monday, FEMA said the impact of the explosion wasn't severe enough to warrant a major disaster declaration...Individual residents, however, are getting help from the federal government. So far, survivors in West have received more than $7 million in grants and low-interest loans. FEMA also agreed to help cover the cost of debris removal and the initial emergency response, such as search and rescue.
But FEMA decided that West, the county and the state could handle paying for the rest, according to the letter.

As many outlets explained, FEMA took followed exactly the same policy when a ruptured gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California on September 9, 2010. Eight people were killed, 38 homes destroyed and a 72 foot crater left after a blast eerily reminiscent of the destruction caused by the West Fertilizer Company. On September 28, 2010, FEMA refused to provide additional assistance. One month later, the agency rejected Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's appeal:

FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen says it was decided additional federal help was unnecessary. The agency has said state and local resources weren't overwhelmed by the Sept. 9 explosion and fire that killed eight people and left a neighborhood a smoldering disaster zone.
FEMA is reimbursing up to 75 percent of the firefighting costs.

Last month, California regulators issued a recommendation that Texans might use a guide:

The California agency investigating the deadly 2010 gas pipeline explosion in a San Francisco Bay Area neighborhood says Pacific Gas & Electric Co. should pay a $2.25 billion fine for its negligence leading up to the blast.
Officials say the penalty would be the largest ever assessed by a state regulator.

Which sounds about right. After all, San Bruno's catastrophe, unlike Moore, Oklahoma or Joplin, Missouri, wasn't an act of God. The San Bruno inferno, like the blast in West, Texas was a case of business negligence. And to pretend otherwise, as infuriated Texans are now, is an act of political malpractice.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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