TEXAS CITY, Texas — Gulf storms chew up roofs, refinery smells curl the nostrils, machinery screeches all night and the threat of industrial accident is so unceasing that telephone poles are topped with warning sirens.
Yet for more than 40,000 people, the city surrounding the BP plant where 15 people died last week -- a blast that injured not only 70 workers but also 30 people from the surrounding neighborhoods -- is home.
The Houston area is the eighth-largest metropolitan region in the nation. Its southern flank is peppered with affordable neighborhoods.
So why settle in a dirty and noisy city of belching smelters, billowing smokestacks and chemical silos?
The answer is twofold.
First, the petrochemical industry is the dominant employer and foundation of civic life here.
Mayor Matthew T. Doyle says the industry provides more than $12 million of the city's $14-million annual tax base. The BP plant employs about 2,000 people in a city with fewer than 16,000 households.
Henry Baumgartner, 51, has lived here most of his life and worked as a pipe fitter at local refineries until 2001, when he struck out on his own as a home contractor.
His grandfather was Henry J. Baumgartner, the fire chief during a 1947 inferno at the Texas City docks that people still refer to as the "big one" -- the explosion of two cargo ships carrying fertilizer. The blast killed more than 500 people, injured 5,000 and left fires burning in town for four days. At the time, it was the worst industrial accident in U.S. history.
Baumgartner says people remain in Texas City, which is southeast of Houston at the entrance to Galveston Bay, because the plants provide a steady stream of jobs that pay upward of $20 an hour.
He says he is alarmed when he visits his son in Florida and drives through towns where blue-collar workers can find work only in hotels or restaurants, where they earn far less.
"It's about the money," says Baumgartner, who lives half a mile from the BP plant. "That's why people stay here. Basically, you just accept the possibility of danger in exchange for the money. It's like being in a war -- you know something will explode or something could happen to you anytime. But the odds are in your favor."
Second, the city's role in supplying a sizable portion of the nation with oil and gas products is a source of pride for employees and residents.
The BP plant is the third-largest refinery in the nation, producing 3% of U.S. gasoline supplies.
The crude oil processed at the plant is turned into compounds that not only fuel the nation's cars, but also wind up in everything from carpet to bulletproof windows.
BP sponsors Boy Scout troops and offers its workers paid time off to volunteer for philanthropic organizations.
"The industry has been great to this community," Doyle says. "You can look at it as a double-edged sword. But it is a way of life here. It's how people are employed. It's how we live. It's who we are."
That choice does not come without risk.
Government watchdogs say the BP plant is one of the largest polluters in Texas. It emits several carcinogenic compounds, including benzene, which state regulators have found in levels that exceed safety thresholds.
Although regulators say there appears to be no evidence of lasting environmental damage in the wake of the explosion, BP did give the state a striking list of the compounds that were in the thick column of smoke that arose after the blast. The list included benzene and heptane, a gasoline component that, in high doses, can affect a person's central nervous system.
About 30 of the 100-plus people injured by the blast were not working at the plant, but were at home in the surrounding neighborhoods.
"We're all aware of the danger," said Pedro Albaladejo, a parts consultant at a Texas City car dealership.
The explosion caused part of the ceiling at Albaladejo's office to collapse; his three children were locked inside their schools in nearby Galveston for several hours while officials determined that the air was safe.
"People around here just get used to it," he said with a shrug.
Indeed, last week's explosion -- the deadliest incident in the Houston area since 1990, when 17 people died at a chemical plant -- was not an isolated incident.
BP has reported at least four serious accidents in the last year to government regulators. Two brought stiff fines from the federal government.
Superheated water erupted from a furnace in September, burning three employees, two of whom died. And the plant was evacuated for several hours last spring after another incident in which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited 14 safety violations and found that BP had a "disregard for worker protection." BP has defended its safety record.
BP is hardly the only source of industrial accidents in the region. Over the years, there have been a number of deadly blasts, including a 1989 explosion at a plastics plant that killed 23 and a 1959 tanker explosion in the Houston Ship Channel that killed eight.