HOUSTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden met with volunteers at a food bank, toured a health center and visited an emergency operations facility on Friday to assess recovery efforts from a severe Texas winter storm while an aide blamed state government for being unprepared.
Biden and his wife Jill Biden landed in Houston where he met Republican Governor Greg Abbott and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to discuss the recovery from last week’s storm, which caused serious damage to homes and businesses, left millions without power or clean water for days, and killed at least two dozen.
At the Houston Food Bank, the largest in the country serving more than 1.1 million people, Biden saw rows of packaged food, from pasta to applesauce, stacked in a large warehouse and watched conveyors move slowly as volunteers pulled food out of boxes and put them in containers for delivery.
He visited an emergency operations center in Harris County, where roughly 50 percent of the county’s 4.9 million residents were without power. “As my mother would say to you, you’re doing God’s work,” he told workers there.
Biden, a Democrat, has sought to bring consolation and empathy to the hard-hit state, which leans heavily Republican.
When he visited a vaccination center, he repeated his message of unity. “We’re not here as Democrats or Republicans. We’re here today as Americans.”
Biden also said his administration has given out 50 million shots of the vaccine out of the 100 million the White House promised will be delivered in the first 100 days. He said the effort is “weeks ahead of schedule.”
“America will be the first … in the world to get that done,” he said. In five weeks, the United States has administered the most shots of any country, Biden said.
The United States has the highest COVID-19 death toll at more than 500,000 people and is still recording the most infections and deaths per day, according to Reuters tracking https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps.
Biden also delivered a warning with his message of hope and progress. “Cases and hospitalizations could go back up as new variants emerge and it’s not the time to relax,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, laid responsibility on the Texas government for foregoing energy regulation that could have left it better prepared.
“Texas has chosen not to make the kinds of decisions that would provide for the supplies that you would keep for an emergency, that is, to invest in a kind of resilience that other states which are regulated are required to invest in,” she said.
“They don’t have the backup in terms of supply or generation capability that they needed to have in this crisis,” she said.
For 10 days this month, Texas was hit by an unusually prolonged period of very low temperatures. Electricity consumption surged, while many generating units failed to start up owing to frozen instrumentation.
The state’s Republican leaders have come under fire for not heeding warnings that the Texas power grid needed significant upgrades to defend against deep freezes.
While much of the rest of the United States features electricity systems that are interconnected, allowing power to cross state lines, Texas has long stood out for having its own grid.
The disaster has been a test of Biden’s pledge to work for all Americans to help unify the country. Abbott initially did not recognize Biden’s November election victory over former Republican President Donald Trump. Texas state officials lost a court bid in December to overturn the results, which Trump has falsely claimed were tainted by widespread fraud.
Last week, Abbott asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Biden to issue a major disaster declaration for all of the state’s 254 counties. Biden initially signed off on a declaration for 77 counties, adding 31 more on Monday and signaling he was open to increasing the number.
The declaration authorizes FEMA to provide grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners.
(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; Writing by Nandita Bose; additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Makini Brice; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Grant McCool)