HOUSTON (CN) — President Joe Biden visited Houston on Friday to meet with local leaders about the recovery from Winter Storm Uri and comfort residents struggling with basic necessities as a result of the natural disaster.
Biden and First Lady Jill Biden arrived at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base on Friday afternoon and then toured the Houston Food Bank, which provides assistance to more than 90,000 households per week. They also visited a Covid vaccination center at NRG Park led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and staffed by FEMA and U.S. Air Force personnel who are giving the shots to around 6,000 people a day.
A week after Uri plunged Texas into single digits and caused extended power outages across the state, some Houstonians still don't have running water at their homes because they have been unable to get their pipes that froze and burst repaired and are using donated bottled water to cook and bathe with.
Though none of Texas' 254 counties were spared from the freeze, Biden issued a major disaster declaration Feb. 19 for only 108 of them, allowing their residents to qualify for federal assistance for motel rooms and home repairs not covered by insurance.
Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, joined Biden in his Houston tour after asking the president to add 54 more counties to the list. Abbott said Friday that FEMA had added 18 additional counties.
"Thank you to our federal partners at FEMA for granting approval for these 18 counties," he said in a statement. "I look forward to working with them to ensure the remaining counties in this request are approved, as well as other counties throughout our state who are in need of assistance."
Biden's visit comes after hearings in the Texas Legislature went late into the night Thursday with lawmakers questioning Bill Magness, the CEO of the state's grid manager the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and power company officials about why the grid was unprepared for Uri.
As the arctic blast moved in, ERCOT said rolling blackouts would last only a few hours to preserve the electricity supply strained by Texans cranking up their heaters.
But the outages lasted five days for some areas, with power plants and the natural gas pipelines supplying them freezing up and becoming inoperable because they had not been weatherized for such frigid temperatures.
Magness acknowledged Thursday ERCOT had misjudged how cold the storm would be, but defended the decision to force power line operators to cut off the lights for days.
He has repeatedly said the state's grid would have suffered a catastrophic failure without the prolonged outages.
Blame for the catastrophe is not confined to ERCOT.
Over the last week, seven wrongful death lawsuits have been filed in Houston courts against CenterPoint Energy, the utility that operates the city's power lines and supplies natural gas to homes, with families claiming their loved ones froze to death because their power was shut off.
Besides Abbott, Biden also met with Texas Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Linda Hidalgo, both Democrats, and Democratic members of Houston’s congressional delegation on Friday.
Hidalgo is chief executive of the county, whose seat is Houston, not a judicial officer. Harris County is the third-most populous county in the nation with over 4.7 million residents, more than 25 states.
In a short speech at NRG Park before flying back to Washington, the president stressed the need for bipartisan cooperation in tackling the storm recovery and Covid-19 vaccine rollout.
“We aren't here today as Democrats or Republicans, we are here today as Americans,” Biden said. “American leaders with...responsibility to all the people we serve.
“When a crisis hits our states like the one that hit Texas, it's not a Republican or Democrat who's hurting, it’s our fellow Americans who are hurting. And it's our job to help everyone in need, look out for one another and leave nobody behind. That's what we've seen today on our visit."
He said in addition to home-repair aid, FEMA is providing Texans with millions of gallons of drinking water, millions of meals and 125,000 blankets.
Some cities in Texas have yet to lift boil-water notices put in place after the freeze burst water mains and caused water pressure to drop to the point it became susceptible to infiltration by dangerous bacteria.
Biden said the Environmental Protection Agency has deployed mobile drinking water labs to help test water and speed up lifting of the boil advisories.
Before taking office, Biden set a goal of vaccinating 100 million people in his first 100 days in office. He said every day he carries a card with the latest vaccine numbers and pulled it from a jacket pocket.
"We are weeks ahead of schedule even with setbacks from the winter storm,” he said. “We are moving in the right direction. Look, in the last six weeks we've gone from 6 million shots total right before we took office to 12 million shots per week now.”Follow @cam_langford
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