Biden approves Texas disaster declaration after fatal freeze
HOUSTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Saturday approved a major disaster declaration for Texas as the state battles fallout from a winter storm that has killed at least two dozen people and caused blackouts widespread and water shortages.
Millions of residents of America’s largest oil and gas producer have faced days of power outages, and nearly half of all Texans still suffer from disruptions to their water service.
Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, which includes Houston, said on Friday authorities were reporting 10 deaths from hypothermia. Officials said a precise death toll would take time to be established.
The Biden administration’s action makes federal funding available to those affected, including help with temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans.
Biden is also considering a trip to Texas to study the federal response to the first new crisis to develop since taking office a month ago. The White House is working closely with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican who did not initially acknowledge Biden’s victory in the November election.
Abbott thanked the president for endorsing the major disaster declaration, saying in a statement that it was “an important first step.” But, he added, individual aid had only been approved for 77 counties, not all of the state’s 254 counties as he had requested.
FROM RESPONSE TO RECOVERY
With all of the state’s power plants back on line, millions of Texans were finally able to turn on the lights and heat their homes again. However, the blackouts persisted and more than 78,000 homes remained without electricity on Saturday morning.
With the weather improving and temperatures expected to return to normal in the coming days, the main concern has shifted from electricity to water.
More than 1,200 public water systems have reported service outages, many of which have resulted in boil water advisories, said Gary Rasp, spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). He said 14.3 million people in 190 counties were affected on Saturday. Morning.
Toby Baker, executive director of TCEQ, said the agency will conduct a comprehensive review of regulations governing the state’s water supply systems.
“I am not aware that I have ever had problems of this magnitude from the point of view of the water system in the history of the state,” he said at a press conference on Saturday. . “We will take full advantage of this event to learn.
At his home in Houston, plumber Jay Farrell said he was “more in a hurricane than this frost”.
Farrell said he was unable to take a shower and had been using buckets of water from his hot tub for days to flush the toilet. As Texas shivered in the dark during the frost, he said the temperature in his home had dropped to 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 5.5 Celsius).
In Houston, authorities have adopted a more optimistic tone after power has been restored to most residents and with massive bottled water distributions underway.
“Things are improving… We are heading towards normality,” Hidalgo said in a video address on Friday. “Right now, it’s about moving from response to recovery. “
Meanwhile, Abbott said he was calling an emergency meeting with officials on Saturday to discuss the rising energy bills received by many residents as a result of the power outages.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a cooperative responsible for 90% of the state’s electricity, has come under fire after the power grid collapsed as demand increased during the freeze.
Abbott lashed out at ERCOT last week, saying the company told officials before the storm the network was prepared.
A lawsuit against ERCOT was filed in Nueces County Court in Corpus Christi on Friday, alleging that the council had ignored the warnings and taken action to address weaknesses in the electrical infrastructure.
Separately, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has directed civil inquiries to ERCOT and other power companies regarding power outages, contingency plans, energy pricing and more about winter weather conditions.
In a statement on Friday, Paxton said the companies had “grossly mismanaged” the weather emergency and pledged to “get to the bottom of this blackout.”
On Saturday, Senator Tina Smith wrote to federal regulators asking for an investigation into any price increases by natural gas producers and suppliers.
“I urge you to launch an investigation into the conditions in the natural gas market over the past week,” Smith said in a letter to the Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. .
Smith said the effects of the Texas crisis could be felt in the region, including spot prices for natural gas which in some cases have reached nearly 100 times normal levels.
Reporting by Callaghan O’Hare in Houston; Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, and Maria Caspani in New York; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Daniel Wallis