WEST –– FEMA has approved a $20 million grant for the West Independent School District to rebuild the high school and middle school that were completely destroyed in the fatal April 17 explosion.
Congressman Bill Flores (R – Texas) announced the grant Monday morning from the gym of West High School’s temporary home. About $1.9 million will go toward rebuilding the city’s 49,000 square foot intermediate school while $18.8 million will help fund the rebuilding of the high school, said Kevin Hanes, FEMA’s coordinating officer for the region.
The school board is expected to approve the schematic designs for the schools this week and take it to bid in June or July, said West ISD Superintendent Marty Crawford. He hopes to find a contractor by July and begin “moving earth” in early August. The schools should be finished by late 2015 or early 2016, he said.
“Our goal is to make sure our kids are happy and, certainly, they’re happy right now because they’re back in school here in West,” Crawford said. “But at the same time, we’re going to be ecstatic the day we cut the ribbon on the new school buildings.”
The West Fertilizer Co. plant exploded on April 17, leaving a 10-foot deep, 93-foot wide crater in the northern edge of town. Fifteen people were killed and more than 300 were injured. The middle school and high school were completely destroyed, as was a nursing home.
Estimates by The Insurance Council of Texas put the cost of damages north of $100 million, including $17 million to fix ruined infrastructure under the town.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency initially balked at providing money to help the town rebuild after the explosion. In a letter sent in June, FEMA initially said the blast “is not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration.”
Gov. Rick Perry appealed the decision in July and by August the feds had reversed track. The state initially requested $40 million to rebuild the destroyed campuses. On Monday, Hanes said, “both the intermediate and the high school were completely destroyed and met our requirements for complete replacement costs.”
“This is the seed money that will help them put the pedal to the metal in the planning process and the reconstruction process shortly after that,” Flores said.
In the 10 months since the explosion, Mayor Tommy Muska said 56 new houses have been built, 122 new building permits have been issued for new construction and the rebuilding of the nursing home should start by March 15. He also said the city is waiting on state approval to begin fixing the road infrastructure and the pipes under the city.
“The city of West is in very good shape 10 months into the disaster,” Muska said.
Hanes said FEMA will continue to work with the school district, city leaders, McLennan County Commissioners and state officials to determine further federal funds.
“This is what we’re doing to get started,” he said. “This is not the final payment.”