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Biden Arrives In Houston To Check On Recovery From Deadly Winter Storms

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden step off Air Force One at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston, where he is scheduled to speak Friday night at a vaccination site at NRG Stadium.
President Biden and first lady Jill Biden step off Air Force One at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston, where he is scheduled to speak Friday night at a vaccination site at NRG Stadium.

Updated at 7:24 p.m. ET

President Biden arrived in Texas on Friday to inspect the damage from a sequence of strong winter storms and intense cold. The system thrust much of Texas into record low temperatures, knocking out power and bursting pipes. Dozens of people died, including several who were reportedly killed by hypothermia in their homes.

Biden met with Gov. Greg Abbott immediately after arriving in Houston at noon local time, as the governor greeted the president and first lady on the tarmac.

The president's visit comes one week after he officiallydeclared a major disaster in the state. He said last week that he wanted to see the situation firsthand — but not until he was sure a presidential visit wouldn't overly burden local officials and infrastructure.

Biden toured the Harris County Emergency Operations Center, before joining the first lady Jill Biden on a visit to the Houston Food Bank.

Shortly afterward, the president addressed Texans directly in a televised speech at at Federal Emergency Management Agency vaccination facility at NRG Stadium. During his remarks, Biden vowed to continue to help Texas, large swaths of which remain under boil-water orders as residents wait for utility companies to fix the damage caused by the storm.

"When a crisis hits our states, it's not a Republican or Democrat who's hurting. It's a fellow American who's hurting," Biden said.

"We will be true partners to help you cover the bill for the storm and this pandemic," he said.

Biden then pivoted to his administration's successes in ramping up vaccination efforts in the fight to stem the pandemic.

"In five weeks, America has administered the most shots of any country in the world," he exclaimed, while once again returning to the idea of unity in the fight against the deadly coronavirus.

He noted that Abbott and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn are both conservative Republicans — "we disagree on plenty of things" — but they're in agreement on the effort to speed up vaccinations.

Biden added: "There's nothing partisan about this virus. ... None of this has a partisan tinge."

He also issued a warning to all Americans about the dangers of complacency as vaccinations go up and COVID-19 cases decline.

"I need to be honest with you," he said. "Hospitalizations could go back up as new variants emerge and it's not the time to relax."

He urged people to continue following CDC guidelines for combating the spread of the virus, including hand washing and social distancing.

"And for God's sake, wear your mask! ...The worst thing we could do is let our guard down."

The severe storms arrived in Texas two weeks ago, triggering a surge in demand for electricity that resulted in rolling power outages and the near-failure of Texas' power grid. The failures brought shock and anger, as pipes froze, water flooded homes and people endured frigid days without any heat. Frustrations only grew when more than 1,000 Texas water utilities issued boil-water notices.

Earlier this week, the family of an 11-year-old boy who died in their home sued their electricity provider and the agency that oversees most of Texas' energy grid, accusing them of negligence.

Electricity has been steadily restored to homes and businesses in Texas since the peak of the storm – only about 13,000 outages are currently reported, compared with millions during the peak of the bad weather. But even as temperatures finally warmed and power was being restored, a water crisis has persisted in many communities, driven by hobbled treatment systems and low water pressure.

Just 24 hours before Biden arrived, more than 1 million Texans remained under boil-water notices. The number has come down slowly but surely since the height of the storm, from more than 12 million people last weekend to 8.7 million on Monday.

The arctic weather and a cascade of problems have cost the U.S. economy anywhere from $27 billion to $37 billion in lost output and property damage, according to a preliminary estimate from Moody's Analytics.

With a federal disaster declared, the U.S. government promises to help Texas residents by providing grant money for temporary housing and home repairs, as well as loans to make up for uninsured losses, the White House says.

Abbott has welcomed the federal help — but his office also has noted that the Biden administration did not initially agree to the request to declare a disaster in the entire state. Rather than including all 254 Texas counties in its declaration, the White House at first listed 77 counties where individual assistance would be approved, with the rest of the state approved for aid through public emergency assistance.

The Biden administration said it would consider expanding the declaration as more details emerged — and it has done that, with the governor's office saying that the FEMA added 49 counties to the declaration this week. But the governor was still expected to raise the subject of adding more counties when he met with Biden in Houston.

In the past week, the storms have also brought wildly expensive electricity bills, in a state where many bargain-hunters pay rates that are tied to daily wholesale prices.

Because of rolling blackouts and reduced capacity, those rates skyrocketed, with some power customers reporting bills of more than $5,000. Abbott has called for an urgent investigation of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state's power grid.

"We will ensure that the tragic events of the past week are never repeated," the governor said this week. "The safety of Texans is my top concern."

As Biden declared a disaster, he mobilized federal aid to bolster state and local actions — a recovery effort that is complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking ahead to his trip to Houston, Biden said on Thursday that the vaccination center at NRG Stadium is "an example of the kind of partnership between federal, state, and local governments, and public and private partners, that's going to get this job done," referring to the battle against COVID-19.

The president urged people to wear face masks and to sign up to be vaccinated as soon as they can.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.