Biden to sign major disaster declaration as scope of Texas crisis emerges

Will Wright, Simon Romero, James Dobbins and Johnny Diaz,

New York Times Service

February 20, 2021 | 10:19 AM

The end of frigid weather across Texas was in sight Friday, but many residents who fled their homes this week in search of warm beds and showers were just discovering the extent of the winter storm’s destruction.

Nearly half the state’s population — about 13 million people — remained under boil-water advisories after freezing temperatures overwhelmed systems providing clean water. The administration of more than 400,000 first doses and 330,000 second doses of the coronavirus vaccines were delayed in Texas.

Nationally, 6 million doses of coronavirus vaccines had been held up because of snowstorms, the White House said Friday. And the death toll across the country has climbed to 58, with many of the fatalities linked to the electricity crisis in Texas.

As people in the state surveyed the damage, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s energy grid, said there was no longer a need for rotating outages.

President Joe Biden said Friday that he would sign a major disaster declaration, which would enable the government to provide more aid to Texas, ahead of a potential visit to the state next week. Biden emphasized that he did not want the visit to create a “burden” for officials involved in emergency relief efforts in Texas.

“They’re working like the devil to take care of their folks,” Biden told reporters.

Many Texans are struggling to get even the basic necessities. Cities are opening water distribution sites, and more than 500 vehicles lined up Friday morning at the headquarters of the San Antonio Food Bank.

The food bank hoped to distribute 100,000 pounds of food and water this weekend. At the site, volunteers and members of the Texas National Guard assessed pallets of potatoes, onions, bread, peanut butter, cakes, watermelon and other fresh produce, readying the food for residents hit hard by blackouts.

Qiana Abrams, a personal trainer who lives in Dallas, said restaurants by a hotel she has been staying at were all closed. The 7-Eleven was picked clean. To get by, she has returned to her flooded apartment to get what food remained in the freezer.

Luis Moreno, a retired State Department employee who lives in San Antonio, said he went to an H-E-B supermarket Friday expecting chaos. People were more well-behaved than he expected, but signs of the supply chain disruption were obvious.

Butter and margarine were gone. The bread counter was nearly wiped out. He felt lucky to find milk and eggs.

“I think it’s luck of the draw,” Moreno said.

Austin’s city manager, Spencer Cronk, said at a news conference Friday afternoon that more than 1 million gallons of water would be arriving in Austin in the next two days. The city will set up distribution centers and will deliver water to the most vulnerable citizens, such as older people and those without homes.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re on the right path, and we’re going to see a positive recovery hour after hour,” said Greg Meszaros, director of Austin’s water utility.

Dispatch lines for water emergencies are overwhelmed, Meszaros said, with more than 10,000 calls a day. Normally, the utility gets about 20 calls a day. Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston said at least 4,900 water pipes had burst throughout the city.

The National Weather Service projected high temperatures in the Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio areas would reach the mid-40s Friday, before rising into the 50s Saturday and the 60s Sunday.

As the weather warms and more pipes burst amid the thaw, Meszaros said he worried there would not be enough plumbers to meet the demand.

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