U.S. President Joe Biden said on Friday he will approve a disaster declaration for Texas, clearing the way for more aid in a crippling winter storm as he weighed a trip to survey the federal response.
Millions of residents in the United States’ biggest oil and gas producer have dealt with power outages, and nearly half of Texans struggled on Friday with disrupted water service. Nearly two dozen deaths have been attributed to the storm and a cold snap.
The first crisis to develop in Biden’s one-month-old term is testing the president’s pledge to govern on behalf of Americans who opposed his candidacy, a campaign commitment the Democrat intended to contrast with Republican former President Donald Trump.
Now, the White House is working closely with Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who did not initially acknowledge Biden’s November election win. In December, Texas state officials tried, and failed, to overturn Biden’s national election win in court.
“As I said when I ran, I’m going to be a president for all Americans,” said Biden, who lost in Texas to Trump.
“If I can do it without creating a burden for folks, I plan on going,” he said. A presidential visit to the state is being planned for next week.
Biden has asked his team to expedite Texas’s request for a disaster declaration, clearing the way for more federal resources, 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 Texas’ request as soon as the agency forwards 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 have access to federal government resources, an administration official said separately.
Biden spoke to Governor Abbott on Thursday, and said the federal government would work with state and local authorities to offer relief to affected families.
Meanwhile, 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 Cancun 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.
Congressional Democrats criticized Abbott and his fellow Republicans who control the state legislature on Friday, saying the crisis happened because they failed to upgrade the state’s independent electricity grid.
“This was preventable because for years Republicans have turned their back on the fact that the Texas power grid was not able to handle extreme cold temperatures,” said Democratic U.S. Representative Marc Veasey. “We’re now given reports that our grid was minutes, if not seconds, away from a complete collapse.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Nandita Bose; Additional reporting by Rick Cowan; Writing by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Heather Timmons and Grant McCool)