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Obama signs disaster declaration months after explosion devastates West, Texas

Federal government pushes for increased chemical plant safety measures in the aftermath of the West, Texas explosion, which claimed 15 lives, and may exist in thousands of other U.S. neighborhoods. NBC's Sarah Dallof reports.

In an about-face, the Obama administration declared West, Texas, a major disaster area in the aftermath of a deadly fertilizer plant explosion that devastated a 37-square-block swath of the town in April.

The declaration, announced Friday, means local government will be eligible to receive federal funding for a town that has vowed to do "whatever they have to do to rebuild."

The explosion on April 17 killed 15 people and injured hundreds more in the town of West, near Waco. It dug a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep, officials have said, flattened a school and tore apart the West Rest Haven nursing home, where rescuers braved the wreckage to help extract more than 130 people.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency in June denied additional money to the town. 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,” according to The Associated Press.

The town had asked for a total of about $57 million to help repair the damage, the AP reported. That number included $40 million to help rebuild a school destroyed in the explosion. In  June, the Insurance Council of Texas estimated that totaled insured losses from the blast could top $100 million.

Perry, who had written a letter to Obama protesting the earlier denial of a presidential disaster declaration, said in a statement on Friday that the federal aid will help the proud town of about 2,800 people piece itself back together.

“The approval of the state’s appeal for a major disaster declaration is great and welcome news for the people of West,” Perry said in the statement. “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.”

The White House release on Friday said that the federal funding would be “available to state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by the explosion in McLennan County.”

A spokesman for FEMA did not immediately reply to requests for comment on Friday.

Tony Gutierrez / AP file

This April 18, 2013 aerial photo shows a destroyed fertilizer plant, top, following an explosion in West, Texas.

The announcement came one day after FEMA announced it would dedicate nearly $2.8 million to help the West Independent School District pay for temporary classrooms and other buildings to replace the high school, middle school, and intermediate school that were either destroyed or heavily damaged in the blast. Students from the town finished out the school year in makeshift facilities or in a nearby district.

“Getting students back to normal schedules and attending school in their own community is an important part of the recovery,” said Kevin L. Hannes, a FEMA coordinating officer, in a release on Aug. 1.

The town’s school board president, Larry Hykel, told NBC News on Friday that kids in West are “excited” to get back to school in the temporary buildings that are being put up on the same site where the wrecked schools once stood.

“We are making a diligent effort to get everything ready, and have everything ready for August 26, and I believe we’re going to do it,” Hykel said. “There may be one or two buildings that won’t be ready but it’s not something that is going to cause us to not have school.”

Players for the West Trojans, the high school football team, are set to start two-a-day practices on August 5, Hykel said, along with volleyball and cross country. It won’t be a normal school year, said Hykel, a life-long resident of West, but the town’s residents are determined to make it work.

“Logistics might cause a little bit of grief early on, but I think once the parents and the students and the administrators get into a routine and work out the bugs, I think everything will be fine,” he said. “They’re going to do whatever they have to do to rebuild.”