Joe Biden said on Friday he was ready to declare a major disaster in Texas after a deadly winter storm cut power and disrupted water supplies for millions across the state.
Biden said the declaration, which follows a request from the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, would open up broader federal aid for immediate and long-term recovery efforts.
A presidential visit to the state is being planned for next week.
“As I said when I ran, I’m going to be a president for all Americans,” said Biden, who won November’s election without winning Texas, of his plans. “If I can do it without creating a burden for folks, I plan on going.”
Biden has asked his team to expedite Texas’s request for a disaster declaration, clearing the way for more federal resources, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters.
The White House later said in a statement that Biden called the acting administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), Bob Fenton, to let him know he would approve the measure as soon as the agency forwarded a formal request.
The White House has been in touch with mayors in Texas cities, including Houston and Austin, and officials in Dallas and other counties, to make sure they were connected to Fema and had access to federal government resources, an administration official said separately.
As cold weather began to abate in Texas, power was being restored across the state, but millions of people remained without safe drinking water throughout the US south as the region struggled to recover from a crippling week of winter weather.
About 370,000 households remained without power in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi on Friday morning, with millions in the region under water-boil advisories, after record low temperatures damaged pipes and infrastructure throughout the southern United States.
In Texas, almost half the state’s residents, about 13 million people remained under boil advisories, with over 700 water supply systems affected, according to an update from the Texas commission on environmental quality on Thursday. In Austin alone, the state’s capital, the city reported losing 325m gallons of water due to burst pipes.
In Jackson, Mississippi, most of the city’s 150,000 residents were without water on Thursday night. Jackson’s mayor, Antar Lumumba, told a press conference the city faced a shortage of chemicals to treat the water, despite pumping efforts to refill city tanks.
In Louisiana, about a million residents were without clean water on Thursday, with 98 water supply systems out across the state, according to the governor, John Bel Edwards. On Thursday, Biden approved a disaster declaration for the state. The president authorized a similar disaster declaration for Texas earlier in the week, allowing Fema to coordinate disaster relief efforts in the state.
Late on Thursday, Abbott announced the state had sought another major disaster declaration which would “allow eligible Texans to apply for assistance to help address broken pipes and related property damage”, according to a press release.
Abbott also announced he would ask the legislature “to mandate the winterization of Texas’s power system and for the legislature to ensure the necessary funding for winterization”.
The frigid temperatures have moved into the Appalachians, northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, and later the north-east as the extreme weather was blamed for the deaths of at least 58 people, including a Tennessee farmer trying to save two calves that apparently wandered into a frozen pond and 17-year-old Oklahoma girl who fell into a frozen pond.
A growing number of people have died trying to keep warm. In and around the west Texas city of Abilene, authorities said six people died of the cold – including a 60-year-old man found dead in his bed. In the Houston area, a family died from carbon monoxide poisoning as their car idled in their garage.
Utilities from Minnesota to Texas used rolling blackouts to ease strained power grids. But the remaining Texas outages were mostly weather-related, according to the Fenton, Fema’s acting director, said on Friday that teams were in Texas with fuel, water, blankets and other supplies.
“What has me most worried is making sure that people stay warm,” Fenton said on CBS This Morning, while urging people without heat to go to a shelter or warming center.
Rotating outages for Texas could return if electricity demand rises as people get power and heating back, said Dan Woodfin, the council’s senior director of system operations.
The crisis is exacerbating and demonstrating the chronic inequality in Texas and across the region. In Houston authorities reported that the mass power and water outages led to more than 500 complaints from residents of price gouging costs for water, gas and rent, double the number of grievances lodged at the start of the pandemic, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Two of Houston Methodist’s community hospitals had no running water and still treated patients but canceled most non-emergency surgeries and procedures for Thursday and possibly Friday, a spokeswoman said.
And across Texas’s vast prison network inmates complained of sub-zero temperatures and stagnant, overflowing toilets, according to local reports.
Meanwhile, the Republican senator Ted Cruz continued to face a backlash for traveling to a Mexican resort city in the middle of the crisis. Cruz returned to Texas from his very brief trip to Cancún on Thursday. He has called the trip a “mistake”.
“We’re not spending any time, energy or breath analyzing Senator Cruz’s whereabouts or his group chat,” Psaki said.