President Biden says ‘we will be true partners’ in wake of Texas storm

Texas

HOUSTON (KXAN) — President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visited Houston to survey storm damage following a series of devastating ice and snow storms last week that knocked out power and water for millions. Some still remain without utilities.

The Bidens will visit the Houston Food Bank, and President Biden will also visit the Harris County Emergency Operations Center as well as deliver remarks around 5 p.m. CT at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s COVID-19 vaccination facility at NRG stadium.

This live blog is no longer being updated in real time.

5:47 p.m.

The Bidens are expected to take off around 6 p.m. and return to Washington, D.C.

5:06 p.m.

Biden spoke about the situation in Texas, as well as efforts to vaccinate people against COVID-19.

He said he wanted Texans to know his and Jill Biden’s prayers are with them in the aftermath of the storm.

“We will be true partners to help you recover and rebuild from the storms, this pandemic and the economic crisis. We’re in it for the long haul,” he said.

  • President Joe Biden at a mass vaccination site at NRG Stadium Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)
  • President Joe Biden at a mass vaccination site at NRG Stadium Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)

4:30 p.m.

President Biden is expected to speak at NRG Stadium around 5 p.m. That location is a FEMA COVID-19 mass vaccination site. Its 11 drive-through lanes dole out 6,000 shots each day to those with appointments. The site first opened Feb. 24 and will remain open seven days a week.

People can register at county and city websites.

2:34 p.m.

Biden spoke with a number of volunteers at the food bank, and even received a hug from one young girl.

President Joe Biden greets some children volunteering at the Houston Food Bank Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)
President Joe Biden greets some children volunteering at the Houston Food Bank Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)

2:18 p.m.

President Joe Biden has joined the First Lady at the Houston Food Bank. Update below from the White House Pool reporter:

  • First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and President Joe Biden visit the Houston Food Bank Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)
  • First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and President Joe Biden visit the Houston Food Bank Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)

Biden and Abbott first stopped in the main lobby for several minutes and received a rundown of the food bank’s food distribution process from Nicole Lander, the organization’s chief impact officer. Lander told the first ladies that the food bank distributes an average of 18 million pounds of food per month during disasters, the equivalent of 20 tractor trailer loads. Lander also noted that one in four children in the Houston area lack consistent access to nutritious food.

At 1:15 p.m., Biden and Abbott moved to a warehouse room down the hall from the lobby and joined volunteers in packing bags of food for the food bank’s Backpack Buddy program, which distributes food on weekends to students who rely on school meals during the week. They were joined by Houston Independent School District Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

“We’re here to help, so put us to work!” Biden said upon entering the room.

Biden packed canned peaches, while Abbott packed boxes of raisins.

1:57 p.m.

John Cornyn said he’s pleased to have President Biden visit Texas. “The governor & Sen Cruz & I asked for a declaration from the federal government which provides access to public & private assistance through FEMA. That’s going to be important for our recovery.”

1:28 p.m.

President Joe Biden is at the Harris County Emergency Operations Center alongside Gov. Abbott.
Judge Lina Hidalgo welcomed them and explained how people have been working at the center tirelessly over the past few weeks.

“Thank you for what you’re doing,” Biden said.

He received an update on the status of Texans and the storm response.

Harris County alone at one point had 1.5 million people without power, 3.5 million without water and boil water notices had to be in effect. 10,400 have reported broken pipes.

TDEM Chief Nim Kidd said almost 12 million bottles of water have been distributed in the state. They’re still working to understand the effects in all the counties.

He added more than 4,600 school buildings in more than 700 districts had broken pipes throughout the state.

“We’ve got a long way to go, Mr. President,” he said.

  • Gov, Greg Abbott, President Joe Biden and Judge Lina Hidalgo in the Harris County Office of Emergency Management Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)
  • Gov, Greg Abbott and President Joe Biden in the Harris County Office of Emergency Management Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)

1:15 p.m.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden is at the Houston Food Bank, the largest food bank in the nation.

  • Dr. Jill Biden visits the Houston Food Bank Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)
  • Dr. Jill Biden visits the Houston Food Bank Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)

Nexstar reporter Wes Rapaport shared information from the White House pool related to Texas, including that Deputy National Security Adviser Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall told reporters as of yesterday the federal government awarded $9 million to Texans in storm assistance. He is double checking that number.

“Although we’re encouraged by the progress that has been made, and we’re seeing the numbers come down dramatically right now in terms of who needs to still go and boil water in Texas, we will continue to look for ways to help through this next phase of recovery,” she said.

“Helping individuals who don’t have insurance for example to recover from the impacts of these storms…I think that’s the most immediate thing,” she added.

When asked about incentivizing changes to Texas’ power grid, she noted the state uses an “autonomous grid,” adding “The question now going forward is whether the state of Texas decides that it wants to move in the direction of bringing more resiliences on its own system.”

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid, is the subject of hearings in the Texas House and Senate over its roll in blackouts in the state.

12:20 p.m.

President Biden and the First Lady landed in Houston around 12:16 p.m. They were greeted by Gov. Greg Abbott on the tarmac.

  • President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden land in Houston Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)
  • Gov. Greg Abbott greets President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Houston Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)
  • TDEM Chief Nim Kidd greets President Joe Biden after he lands in Houston Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)
  • Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee greets President Joe Biden after he lands in Houston Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)
  • Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner greets President Joe Biden after he lands in Houston Feb. 26, 2021 (Pool Photo)

12:01 p.m.

Sen. Ted Cruz is not among the state leaders joining Biden Friday in Houston. He spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday in Orlando and made light of the controversy surrounding his recent trip to Mexico while Texas was dealing with its winter storm.

“I gotta say… Orlando is awesome. It’s not as nice as Cancun… but it’s nice,” Cruz joked to a mixture of cheers, boos and laughs as he started his speech.

According to the White House spokesperson Jen Psaki, “there was neither an invitation” or request from Cruz related to Biden’s visit.

11:58 a.m.

The President and first lady are expected to arrive in Houston around noon.

11 a.m.

10:45 a.m.

FEMA has added 18 Texas counties to President Biden’s Major Disaster Declaration for individual assistance. These counties were included in Texas’ request submitted Thursday asking 54 counties be added to the declaration.

“Thank you to our federal partners at FEMA for granting approval for these 18 counties,” said Governor Abbott. “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.”

Atascosa, Bandera, Brooks, Duval, Eastland, Ector, Goliad, Howard, Jim Hogg, Karnes, Kleberg, Leon, Llano, Newton, Robertson, Trinity, Webb and Willacy were added. See all counties under the declaration below:

10 a.m.

The following people will visit with President Biden:

  • Governor Greg Abbott
  • Senator John Cornyn
  • Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo
  • Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner
  • Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia (TX-29)
  • Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18)
  • Congressman Al Green (TX-09)
  • Congresswoman Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (TX-07)

Background:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will exercise his empathy skills Friday during a Texas visit with a dual mission: surveying damage caused by severe winter weather and encouraging people to get their coronavirus shots.

Biden and his wife, Jill, were traveling to Houston for the president’s first trip to a major disaster site since he took office a little over a month ago.

Severe winter weather across the South over Valentine’s Day weekend battered multiple states, with Texas bearing the brunt of unseasonably frigid conditions that caused widespread power outages and frozen pipes that burst and flooded homes. Millions of residents lost heat and running water.

At least 49 people in Texas died as a result of the storm and, although the weather has returned to more normal temperatures, more than 1 million residents were still under orders to boil water before drinking it.

Biden is expected to visit a food bank and meet with local leaders to discuss the storm, relief efforts and progress toward recovery. He is to be accompanied by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

While in Houston, the Democratic president also planned to visit a mass coronavirus vaccination center run by the federal government. Biden on Thursday commemorated the 50 millionth COVID-19 vaccination since he took office, halfway toward his goal of 100 million shots by his 100th day in office. That celebration followed a moment of silence to mark the passage earlier this week of 500,000 U.S. deaths blamed on the disease.

The post-storm debate in Texas has centered on the state maintaining its own electrical grid and lack of storm preparation, including weatherization of key infrastructure. Some state officials initially blamed the blackouts on renewable energy even though Texas is a heavy user of fossil fuels like oil and gas.

The White House said Biden’s purpose in visiting would be to support, not scold.

“The president doesn’t view the crisis and the millions of people who’ve been impacted by it as a Democratic or Republican issue,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. “He views it as an issue where he’s eager to get relief, to tap into all the resources in the federal government, to make sure the people of Texas know we’re thinking about them, we’re fighting for them and we’re going to continue working on this as they’re recovering.”

Psaki said policy discussions about better weatherization and preparation could come later, “but right now, we’re focused on getting relief to the people of the state.”

Biden has declared a major disaster in Texas and asked federal agencies to identify additional resources to aid the recovery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent emergency generators, bottled water, ready-to-eat meals and blankets.

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said in an interview that he didn’t know what more the federal government could do to help because the failures were at the state level. But Henry, a Republican who is the highest county official in the suburban Houston county, said that if Biden “thinks it’s important to visit, then come on down.”

Biden wanted to make the trip last week, but said at the time that he held back because he didn’t want his presence and entourage to detract from the recovery effort.

Biden, whose life has been marked by personal tragedy, is known for his ability to empathize with others and their suffering. His first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car collision in 1972. His son, Beau Biden, died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.

No Texas lawmakers were expected to hitch a ride home aboard Air Force One due to “limitations on space” on the plane, Psaki said.

It was unclear whether Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz would join Biden in the state. Members of Congress often tag along when a president visits their state.

The state’s other senator, Republican John Cornyn, planned to join Biden, a spokesman said.

Cruz, an ally of former President Donald Trump and one of a handful of GOP lawmakers who had objected to Congress certifying Biden’s victory, was scheduled to address the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, on Friday morning, a spokesman said.

Cruz was recently criticized for taking his family to Cancun, Mexico, while millions of Texans shivered in their unheated homes during the disaster. Cruz later said the trip was a mistake. Cornyn’s plans were unclear.

Coincidentally, Houston also was the destination for Trump’s first presidential visit to a disaster area in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding that August.

Trump, who is not known for displays of empathy, did not meet with storm victims on the visit. He returned four days later and urged people who had relocated to a shelter to “have a good time.”

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