“Jill and I are keeping Texas, Oklahoma, and other impacted states in our prayers,” Biden wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “I’ve declared states of emergency, authorized FEMA to provide generators and supplies, and am ready to fulfill additional requests.”
Competent government was a central promise of Biden’s campaign, and personal empathy has long been part of his identity. The Texas storm arguably calls for both, and it confronts Biden with an early leadership test for his young presidency.
So far, Biden has not opted for higher-profile gestures such as visiting the stricken areas, making public remarks or seizing on electrical failures to push his infrastructure plan. His administration is immersed in the fight against the coronavirus epidemic, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a presidential trip could disrupt police and rescue efforts in the disaster zone.
Still, the White House on Thursday sought to make the case that the administration is doing what it can. It announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided 60 generators to Texas to keep hospitals powered and water pumps running. FEMA has also supplied 729,000 liters of water, 225,000 meals, 10,000 wool blankets and 50,000 cotton blankets, officials said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said he would ask the White House for a “major disaster declaration” in addition to the emergency status that already was granted. The new aid, aimed at long-term repair rather than immediate rescue, would let Texans apply for help with expenses such as replacing broken pipes. “The past several days have been beyond challenging, but with every passing hour we are restoring power and water for families across Texas,” Abbott said.
Robert J. Fenton Jr., the acting FEMA administrator, said in an interview that the agency has a presence in nearly 15 states and is monitoring the fallout from power and water supply failures and preparing for possible flooding when temperatures rise.
But the unusual storm creates some challenges as the administration deals with multiple crises, including the pandemic. Fenton said Biden requested a briefing on the storm on Tuesday, but Fenton was in Los Angeles opening a coronavirus vaccination site, and another FEMA official, David Bibo, had to conduct the briefing.
“He is engaged,” Fenton said of Biden. “He’s phoning governors, he’s leaning on us to provide assistance early.”
Not everyone in Texas is satisfied. State Rep. Bob Hall, a Republican, blamed the failures on several factors, including ailing infrastructure and a state power grid that needs improvement. But he also said he viewed the federal response as inadequate.
“I have seen nothing from the federal government in response except they were going to offer up some generators,” Hall said. But he also added that he would be skeptical if federal help came with restrictions.
“I would be very concerned about any strings the federal government wants to attach,” said Hall, who used a hairdryer and an incandescent lightbulb to warm his frozen pipes at his home near Dallas. “Especially green-energy-related.”
One top White House aide said the government is relying in part on the network that sprang up as part of the federal response to the novel coronavirus.
“There is a silver lining to the very dark cloud of covid, which is that our FEMA teams have been deeply embedded for quite a long time,” Liz Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s homeland security adviser, told reporters. “There’s a great deal of familiarity among the people involved in needing to work these issues now — because they’ve been working for quite a while on covid response.”
Sherwood-Randall also said the storm highlights the need for a large-scale rethinking of American infrastructure and energy policy, forecasting a broader debate that the White House soon may pursue. The weather emergencies demonstrate again that climate change is real, she said, “and we’re not adequately prepared for it. The infrastructure is not built to withstand these extreme conditions.”
Although Biden has made telephone calls and been briefed several times daily, he has largely focused in recent days on what his administration views as the biggest challenge confronting his presidency — the coronavirus response and vaccine distribution.
The storm that gripped the Southwest and left millions of Texans without power did not come up Tuesday night during Biden’s hour-long CNN town hall, and he did not comment publicly about it Wednesday as his Twitter feed urged Americans to embrace vaccines and mask-wearing.
The politics of natural disasters can be among the thorniest and least predictable for presidents, because the events can seem to come out of nowhere and present a stark test of competence.
George W. Bush was heavily criticized for his administration’s failure to prepare for and respond adequately to Hurricane Katrina, hurting Republicans the following year in the 2006 midterm elections.
As president, Donald Trump sometimes tied federal aid to a state’s political leanings, threatening officials in the midst of crises. In 2019, he threatened to cut off federal aid to California to deal with its wildfires,accusing Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, of mismanagement, relenting only when Newsom called him to make a personal appeal.
Trump also held up an aid package for Puerto Rico for three years, calling its leaders corrupt and publicly sparring with them. He released the aid weeks before the 2020 election in what Democrats called a bid to win votes in Florida.
“I’m the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico,” Trump said in releasing the aid. “Nobody even close.”
In Texas this week, some state officials noted the difference — not in whether they received aid but in the tone.
“Biden didn’t make Abbott grovel or humiliate himself or pledge his loyalty. I think that’s a vast improvement over the past four years,” said Democratic state Rep. Gene Wu, who lost power at home for three days but got it back early Thursday.
He spoke Thursday from a Chinese restaurant where he was picking up hundreds of hot meals he planned to take to an apartment complex in his district in southwest Houston.
“It’s nothing fancy — just chicken, vegetables and rice, but it’s hot, and there are people in my district who have not had electricity or water for the last four days,” Wu said. “We’re just trying to help as much as we can.”
State Rep. Rafael Anchía, a member of the Energy Committee in the Texas House, said he was relieved by the federal response, particularly since the Trump administration rejected a request for a disaster declaration in his district after devastating tornadoes in 2019.
“They’ve been really responsive, which has been good to see — a competent response to a natural disaster,” said Anchía, a Democrat, adding that the 2019 decision was “a real gut punch for Dallas.”
Throughout the day Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was criticized by other officials for traveling with his family to Cancun, Mexico, as many of those in his home state were left without power, food or safe drinking water. Cruz rushed home Thursday afternoon, saying it was his daughters who’d wanted the trip.
“With school canceled for the week, our girls asked to take a trip with friends,” Cruz said in a statement. “Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon.”
Some Republicans came to Cruz’s defense, arguing that there is little that U.S. senators can do during a natural disaster.
“There’s also a difference between a Governor and a Senator in terms of job description and what they can do for localized disasters,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted. “Optics is one thing but let’s be real here.”
Responding to a reporter’s question about Cruz, Psaki sought to poke gently at the senator without criticizing him directly. “The many people across the state who are without power, without the resources they need — we expect that would be the focus of anyone in the state or surrounding states who was elected to represent them,” she said. “But I don’t have any update on his whereabouts.”
Psaki suggested Biden might not visit the affected region any time soon.
“One of the factors to consider here is what the impact is — the footprint of a presidential trip,” she said. “It can take up resources, it can take up the time and energy of police and security. And so those are factors we consider as we determine when and where he’ll visit.”
Instead, Biden has sought to signal his concern through official actions. The president almost immediately approved a federal emergency declaration requested by Abbott, authorizing the federal government to coordinate disaster relief efforts.
On Wednesday, the White House announced that FEMA was supplying generators and moving diesel fuel into the state to boost the supply of backup power.
By Thursday afternoon, power had been restored in much of Texas, but the operator of the state’s electricity grid said rotating power outages still might be required for several more days.
Biden approved a similar emergency declaration for Oklahoma at the request of Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), the White House announced Thursday.
“Thank you @POTUS for your quick action to approve our request,” the governor wrote on Twitter.
By Thursday afternoon, the White House had approved an additional request that was submitted by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D).