President Joe Biden says he'll visit Texas soon and sign a major disaster order after a winter storm hammered the state

Joe Biden
Posted at 1:27 PM, Feb 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-19 18:54:04-05

President Joe Biden said Friday that he’ll sign a major disaster declaration for Texas after millions in the state suffered power outages and water disruptions during prolonged freezing temperatures. He’s also expected to visit Texas soon.

Biden already signed an emergency declaration for Texas on Feb. 14, which authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide the state with critical equipment, like generators, and other resources like water and diesel to alleviate the effects of the disaster. A major disaster declaration, requested by Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday, is distinct from an emergency declaration. It essentially provides a wider range of assistance through “federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure.”

"I’m going to sign that declaration once it’s in front of me,” Biden said Friday, adding that he has already directed various federal agencies, like the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services, to continue assisting Texans through the crisis.

An emergency declaration functions as a supplement to state and local emergency services, while a major disaster declaration is issued if the president determines a disaster “has caused damage of such severity that it is beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments to respond,” according to FEMA’s website.

Biden homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall told reporters Thursday that FEMA has so far supplied Texas with 60 generators for critical infrastructure, 729,000 liters of water, more than 10,000 wool blankets, 50,000 cotton blankets, and 225,000 meals, according to The Hill. A FEMA spokesperson told The Texas Tribune that states decide how and in what manner they distribute supplies provided by the federal government. The Texas Division of Emergency Management is the state entity that keeps track of that data, according to FEMA spokesperson Earl Armstrong. TDEM did not immediately respond to an inquiry on how much supplies initially provided by FEMA currently remain or if the agency has taken full advantage of all federal assistance provided thus far.

The major disaster declaration allows for various assistance programs at the discretion of the governor’s specific request, and it can include programs for crisis counseling, disaster case management, disaster unemployment assistance and legal services, among others.

After a natural disaster wreaks havoc, FEMA conducts a “preliminary damage assessment" to “determine the extent of the disaster, its impact on individuals and public facilities and the types of federal assistance that may be needed.” Texas Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd urged Texans from all 254 counties who’ve noticed storm-related property damage to fill out a survey explaining the damages, which will then be sent to FEMA.

For public infrastructure damage, the declaration offers programs that can assist with debris removal, emergency protective measures, repairing or replacing roads and bridges and assistance with repairing damages to utility infrastructure. Not all programs are activated for every disaster, however. That would depend on the governor “and the needs identified during the joint PDA and subsequent PDAs,” according to FEMA’s website.

Eight Texas Democrats penned a letter to Biden Thursday urging him to sign the major disaster declaration for the state.

“As the conditions continue, federal assistance from FEMA will be vital in ensuring that communities are able to repair damage and undertake crucial mitigation work,” the letter said.

The Democrats, however, urged the federal government in the letter to provide the state expedited disaster assistance “without a full field damage assessment,” like the standard public damage assessment.

Meanwhile, 18 Texas Republicans and one Texas Democrat, U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, in the U.S.House also wrote a letter Friday calling on Biden to swiftly approve the major disaster declaration outlining the drastic impact the snow storm inflicted on the state's infrastructure and agriculture sector.

"Early estimates show damages are in excess of $27 million with many local jurisdictions unable to provide full damage assessments due to ongoing weather conditions," the letter said. "This total is expected to grow exponentially and surpass the necessary threshold."

And U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn separately backed Abbott’s request for additional federal assistance through the major disaster declaration, arguing that “the severity and magnitude of the storm is beyond the response capabilities of the state and local government.”

“Despite the Governor’s swift action to mobilize state, local, and non-profit resources, Federal action is necessary to protect the lives of Texans now and in the weeks to come. We respectfully urge you to approve the Governor’s request and stand prepared to assist you in any way possible. Please do not hesitate to reach out to our offices with any questions,” the letter said.

It’s unclear when or where Biden will visit Texas. He told reporters Friday that he originally considered visiting in the middle of next week, but didn’t want to be a burden.

“When the president lands in a city in America it has a long tail,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/19/texas-power-water-disaster-order-joe-biden/.

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