HOUSTON — President Joe Biden’s public empathy is on display on his trip to a major disaster site since he took office a little over a month ago. The president and his wife, Jill, are in Texas to survey damage caused by severe winter weather and to encourage people to get their coronavirus shots.
The brutal winter weather across the South over Valentine’s Day weekend battered multiple states, with Texas bearing the brunt of unseasonably frigid conditions that caused widespread power outages and frozen pipes that burst and flooded homes. Millions of residents lost heat and running water.
At least 40 people in Texas died as a result of the storm and, although the weather has returned to more normal temperatures, more than 1 million residents are still under orders to boil water before drinking it.
“The president has made very clear to us that in crises like this, it is our duty to organize prompt and competent federal support to American citizens, and we have to ensure that bureaucracy and politics do not stand in the way,” said Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall, who accompanied Biden to Houston
Biden planned to meet with local leaders to discuss the storm, relief efforts and progress toward recovery and to visit a food bank and meet volunteers. He was to be accompanied by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
While in Houston, the Democratic president also planned to visit a mass coronavirus vaccination center at NRG Stadium that is run by the federal government. Biden on Thursday commemorated the 50 millionth COVID-19 vaccination since he took office, halfway toward his goal of 100 million shots by his 100th day in office. That celebration followed a moment of silence to mark the passage earlier this week of 500,000 U.S. deaths blamed on the disease.
The post-storm debate in Texas has centered on the state maintaining its own electrical grid and lack of storm preparation, including weatherization of key infrastructure. Some state officials initially blamed the blackouts on renewable energy even though Texas is a heavy user of fossil fuels like oil and gas.
Sherwood-Randall said it remains up to Texas on how to shore up its utilities.
“Fundamentally the first decision has to be made by the state of Texas about what kind of energy system it wants to maintain, what kind of energy market it wants to maintain,” she said.
The White House said Biden’s purpose in visiting would be to support, not scold.
“I expect that what he will do during this trip today is asking every single person he sees what do you need, how can I help you more,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “And what can we get more for you from the federal government. And it’s important to him that he does that on the ground in person, he has that direct engagement.”
Biden has declared a major disaster in Texas and asked federal agencies to identify additional resources to aid the recovery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent emergency generators, bottled water, ready-to-eat meals and blankets.
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said in an interview that he didn’t know what more the federal government could do to help because the failures were at the state level. But Henry, a Republican who is the highest county official in the suburban Houston county, said that if Biden “thinks it’s important to visit, then come on down.”
Biden wanted to make the trip last week, but said at the time that he held back because he didn’t want his presence and entourage to detract from the recovery effort.
Biden, whose life has been marked by personal tragedy, is known for his ability to empathize with others and their suffering. His first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car collision in 1972. His son, Beau Biden, died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, planned to join Biden, a spokesman said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, an ally of former President Donald Trump and one of a handful of GOP lawmakers who had objected to Congress certifying Biden’s victory, was in Florida addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Cruz was recently criticized for taking his family to Cancun, Mexico, while millions of Texans shivered in their unheated homes during the disaster. Cruz later said the trip was a mistake. Cruz made light of his misstep to the CPAC crowd.
“Orlando is awesome,” he said to laughs and hoots. “It’s not as nice as Cancun. But’s nice.”
Houston also was the destination for Trump’s first presidential visit to a disaster area in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding that August.
Trump, who is not known for displays of empathy, did not meet with storm victims on the visit. He returned four days later and urged people who had relocated to a shelter to “have a good time.”