Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

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February 10, 2014

Feds grant $20M to West schools

HOUSTON — A federal agency is granting $20 million to a rural Central Texas town to help rebuild two schools destroyed in last year's deadly fertilizer plant explosion, town and federal officials said Monday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide the West Independent School District with the money it needs to rebuild a high school and an intermediate school, Mayor Tommy Muska told The Associated Press. It will cost about $60 million to rebuild the two facilities. He said the school district's insurance company will cover about $45 million and the FEMA money will pay for the rest.

"That's wonderful news," Muska said.

The schools were among dozens of homes and buildings destroyed when the chemical fertilizer ammonium nitrate blew up during a fire in April at the West Fertilizer Co. Fifteen people — 10 of them first responders rushing to fight the initial blaze — were killed, and about 200 others were injured.

The April 17 explosion that was so intense it registered as a small earthquake and left a 93-foot crater where once there were homes and buildings.

Initially, FEMA had denied major disaster assistance to the town. But weeks after its initial decision, FEMA reversed course and announced it would provide financial grants to the rural community after all.

Jacqueline Chandler, a FEMA spokeswoman in the region that oversees Texas, said the overall grant to the school district is for just more than $20 million, with 75 percent of the money coming from the federal government. The local authorities will pay the remainder — around $3 million.

"This is very good news because we want to get the high school and the intermediate school replaced and back for the kids to use," Chandler said. Portable buildings are currently being used.

Construction on the two schools is expected to begin in April.

The agency is also reviewing requests for about $2 million the City of West needs to rebuild roads and other infrastructure, Muska said.

"We're still in limbo; we're still working with FEMA," Muska said.

In the meantime, though, the city has provided permits to either rebuild or renovate nearly 180 homes, he said. In March, construction will begin on a new nursing home to replace the one destroyed by the blast, Muska added.

"We're making progress," Muska said. "We've made I think wonderful progress in the 10 months that have gone by."

Chandler said the additional projects are "going through review" but couldn't say how long it would take for FEMA to approve the funding.

"We're going to work as quickly as we can as partners to make sure we get it out as soon as we can," she said.

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