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Biden’s low-key approach to storm wins praise but courts risks

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/21/2021 Cleve Wootson, Eva Ruth Moravec

AUSTIN —Democratic state Rep. James Talarico says the most he's heard of federal help in his area during the devastating winter storm is a FEMA water truck that apparently got stuck in ice. K.P. George, the top elected official in Fort Bend County, Tex., said federal officials have told him help is on the way — just not fast enough: "We can't wait another 72 hours to get food and blankets and things like that," he said.

And U.S. Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.), a congressman from Dallas, said what would help most, beyond an infusion of federal dollars, is a visit from President Biden.

"This has been something like the Dark Ages here in Texas," Allred said. "I mean, people are burning their furniture and their fences for warmth and for heat. They're finding older folks literally frozen to death in their beds. When the president has toured — seen the damage, spoken to the people who were affected — I think that makes it a little bit hard to say, 'Well, I'm sorry, you're going to be on your own.' "

As the Biden administration faces its first natural disaster, the president himself is taking a notably low-key approach. He has not visited the stricken region or delivered prime-time remarks; he did not mention the disaster at a recent town hall; and he is studiously avoiding the controversy over whether wind energy or fossil fuels are to blame for widespread power failures.

It's a marked contrast to former president Donald Trump's habit of making himself the often-hostile center of attention during natural disasters. He famously tossed paper towels to hurricane victims, excoriated Californians for "gross mismanagement" of forests and called Puerto Rican leaders "corrupt and incompetent" for their handling of aid money.

While Biden has won praise for his quieter, more businesslike approach, he is also running the risk that he — and the federal government — can appear almost absent. State and local officials say a big test will come in the months and years ahead, as Texans replace burst pipes in flooded homes, clear out dead crops and livestock and investigate the collapse of an electrical grid that left millions shivering in the dark.

“This is a catastrophic loss across the board,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said by phone from Stephenville, where he was tending his cattle. The storms knocked out this year’s and next year’s citrus crops in three Texas counties, a loss of more than $300 million, and Miller ultimately expects all 254 counties in Texas to be declared federal disaster areas in coming weeks.

“We poured out over 1,600 trailer trucks of milk because we can’t pasteurize it,” Miller said. “It’s affected the poultry farmers, the hatcheries. We’ve got little chicks that froze to death and incubators that we can’t keep warm, so those eggs aren’t going to hatch.”

[Texas Grocery lets people shop without paying]

The storms have killed at least 48 people in the past week, including 30 in Texas, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. Among the dead were people poisoned by carbon monoxide as they ran car engines to stay warm and a boy who authorities believe froze to death in his bed.

The Texas electrical grid has largely been restored after its failure left 4 million people without power as temperatures bottomed out in the teens and 20s, but other critical services limped into the weekend. On Friday, more than 14.9 million people in Texas didn’t have reliable running water.

In the wake of the storm, Biden approved an emergency declaration for Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, which authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide care, shelter and funds for direct federal assistance. He signed a major disaster declaration for 77 Texas counties on Saturday, paving the way for more aid to address longer-term problems.

Initially, the administration talked up relief numbers that paled in comparison to the immense need in a state of more than 29 million people — boasting that it had sent 60,000 blankets and 60 generators for hospitals — but officials later said a better measure is the amount of money provided to the state, which has not been estimated yet.

FEMA is awaiting the confirmation of a director, though its acting director, Bob Fenton, is an experienced career official and a veteran of numerous disasters. Biden has told reporters he has also directed other departments — including Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Defense — to help people in Texas.

Biden and others in his administration are debating whether the president should make a trip to the devastated area next week, saying the security concerns that come with a presidential visit can strain badly needed local resources.

“From everything I’ve seen, they’re following the playbook,” said Daniel Kaniewski, a former FEMA deputy administrator under Trump. “The president has authorized FEMA to provide those physical resources and financial resources.”

Just as important, officials said, is what Biden has not done. Several credited him with not politicizing the disaster, and he has not weighed in on some Texas officials’ widely disputed claim that the failure of wind turbines was largely responsible for power failures. The president has also refrained from scolding state leaders for decisions relating to their power grid that might have contributed to the electrical collapse.

Congress is likely to open an investigation into systemic failures in Texas, and the state’s legislature is expected to conduct hearings of its own.

The storm first hit on Sunday, Feb. 14, but Biden was silent about it at a nationally televised town hall on CNN on Tuesday, first speaking publicly of the natural disaster on Thursday. He has tweeted that he and first lady Jill Biden were “keeping Texas, Oklahoma, and other impacted states in our prayers” and conferring with state leaders of both parties.

Officials say it is a marked difference from Trump, who often used natural disasters to attack political adversaries. He excoriated the California officials dealing with rampant wildfires, for example, saying their “gross mismanagement” of forest floors had led to the deadly blazes.

He similarly blasted leaders in Puerto Rico for how they managed aid money after Hurricane Maria, while a visit where he tossed paper towels to a crowd has been cited as a study in tone-deafness. At other times, Trump suggested he would withhold aid to states like California because of their political leanings.

The Biden administration has sought to showcase a more professional approach.

“President Biden called Gov. Abbott and said that he put all the resources of the government at his disposal, even though he didn’t win the state of Texas — which is not something the previous occupant probably would have done,” Allred said. “He didn’t blame it on the state, either, or say this was a preventable issue and that the state should have done a better job of regulating our power grid.”

Allred, a Democrat, said that when a tornado flattened parts of his district two years ago, he had to strategize about how to get help from the Trump administration. “I have Texas Republicans who surround my district who I knew were closer to Trump and the White House, and I asked them if [they] could try to weigh in,” he said.

Still, Allred and others said the biggest test for Biden will be whether the federal government continues to provide help after the deadly storm has stopped dominating headlines. The Insurance Council of Texas said the storm will be the “largest insurance claim event in [Texas] history,” and hundreds of thousands of claims are expected.

Recovery is of particular concern as pandemic restrictions stretch into a second year. Biden has said his top priority is helping the nation emerge from the grips of the pandemic. He did not travel to states affected by the storm this week, instead touring a Pfizer vaccine plant in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Officials in Texas say they worry that vaccine sites shuttered by outages, and residents huddled too close together in warming centers, would seed new coronavirus cases.

Talarico, the state legislator, said Texas almost overnight became “a preindustrial country where we lack basic infrastructure to meet basic needs.”

For 48 hours, as temperatures dropped, Talarico, 31, lost power in his freezing home with no cellphone reception and no Internet. He said it was terrifying “being disconnected from the rest of the world while this was happening.”

While his power had been restored by Friday, Talarico’s water was turned off after a pipe sprung a leak. His grandmother, 90, lives alone in Harper, a small town in the Texas Hill Country, where she was out of power for days.

Things were similarly bad in Fort Bend County, home to more than 800,000 people southwest of Houston. George, whose title is county judge but is the top elected official, said aid was slowed because the county budgets few resources for snow removal, since temperatures in even the coldest winters are usually above freezing.

George said he was sifting through an array of federal and state aid options, mixed with local solutions — whatever could bring relief the fastest.

After talking to a FEMA official on Thursday, George said he believed federal help would be coming, though not swiftly. “They said we have to go through [the Texas Department of Emergency Management],” he recounted. “And I’m saying, ‘We need help now, and we don’t have time to fill out a million forms. I will do all that stuff, but we need water today. We needed water yesterday.’ ”

For all the immediate need, the extensive damage from the cold — broken pipes, flooded homes, spoiled livestock — means recovery is likely to take years.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo, on the Mexican border, said she has never seen a weather emergency affect the entire state of Texas at once.

“Everybody’s saying that this storm is going to be more costly than Hurricane Harvey, which was $19 billion,” Zaffirini said. “Those losses were severe, but only in one concentrated area. This has impacted all 254 counties. Texas has a desperate need for assistance.”

Miller, the agriculture commissioner, said he had already lost three head of Angus and figured he’d lose more to pneumonia. On Friday, he shuttled thirsty cows to a well because their usual water sources were frozen solid. Miller said the storm had strained many links in the state’s food supply, especially those that depend on natural gas.

“It’s covid all over again. Our farmers are going to receive lower prices, the packing plants are shut down, there’s going to be a glut on the supply end,” he said. “And then consumers are going to be paying record-high prices because the grocery shelves are empty.”

Wootson reported from Washington. Nick Miroff and Mark Berman in Washington contributed to this report.

a group of people walking down the street: Residents looking to purchase essentials wait for a Sam’s Club in Austin to open Saturday. © Joe Raedle/Getty Images Residents looking to purchase essentials wait for a Sam’s Club in Austin to open Saturday.

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