Biden approves Texas catastrophe declaration after Reuters deadly freeze

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© Reuters. US President Biden visits the Pfizer manufacturing facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan

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By Callaghan O’Hare

HOUSTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden passed a Declaration of Disaster in Texas on Saturday as the state grapples with the aftermath of a winter storm that killed at least two dozen people and experienced widespread power outages and water shortages.

Millions of residents of the United States’ largest oil and gas producer have faced days of power outages, and nearly half of Texans still suffer from disruptions to their water supplies.

Lina Hidalgo, the top elected officer in Harris County, which includes Houston, said authorities reported 10 deaths from hypothermia on Friday.

The action by the Biden government provides federal funds for those affected, including assistance with temporary repairs to apartments and houses, as well as low-cost loans.

Biden is also considering a trip to Texas to examine the federal response to the first new crisis since he took office a month ago. The White House works closely with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican who initially disregarded Biden’s election victory in November.

Abbott thanked the president for approving the statement on the major disaster and said in a statement that it was “an important first step”. He added that individual assistance had only been approved for 77 counties, not all of the state’s 254 counties as he requested.

FROM THE ANSWER TO THE RECOVERY

With all of the state’s power plants back on track, millions of Texans were finally able to turn on the lights and heat their homes again. However, the outages persisted and more than 78,000 households were left without power on Saturday morning.

Given the improving weather and the expected normalization of temperatures in the coming days, the main concern has shifted from electricity to water.

More than 1,200 public water systems have reported malfunctions, many of which resulted in notifications of boiling water, said Gary Rasp, a spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. He said 14.3 million people in 190 counties were affected as of Saturday morning.

“I’d rather have been through a hurricane than this frost,” Jay Farrell, a plumber, told Reuters at his Houston home.

Farrell said he couldn’t shower and has been using buckets of water from his hot tub to flush the toilet for days. When Texas was shaking in the dark while it was freezing, he said the temperature in his house had dropped to minus 5.5 degrees Celsius.

In Houston, officials were more optimistic after most residents were restored to electricity and the mass distribution of bottled water began.

“Things are looking good … We are heading towards normality,” said Hidalgo on Friday in a video address. “Right now, it’s about moving from reaction to recovery.”

Meanwhile, Abbott said he convened an emergency meeting with officials on Saturday to discuss the rise in energy bills many residents were receiving after the blackouts.

FINGERPOINT

Texas’ Electric Reliability Council (ERCOT), a cooperative responsible for 90% of the state’s electricity, has come under fire after the power grid collapsed as demand spiked during the freeze.

Abbott hit ERCOT last week, saying the company had told officials before the storm that the network was ready.

A lawsuit against ERCOT was filed on Friday in the Nueces District Court in Corpus Christi alleging that the council failed to heed warnings and took action to address weaknesses in energy infrastructure.

Separately, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has made civil investigative requests against ERCOT and other utility companies regarding power outages, contingency plans, energy prices, and more related to winter weather.

In a statement on Friday, Paxton said the companies “grossly mistreated” the weather emergency and vowed to “get to the bottom of the blackout.”

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