HOUSTON (KXAN/Nexstar) — President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden step off Air Force One onto the Houston tarmac, greeted by Governor Greg Abbott, other local and state leaders and a balmy 77°. The weather was a stark contrast to the devastating winter storms that swept across the state just two weeks ago, leaving millions of people without power and water.
After a full day of touring the Harris County Emergency Operations Center, the Houston Food Bank and a mass COVID-19 vaccination site at NRG Stadium, he thanked leaders like Governor Greg Abbott and Senator John Cornyn for meeting him. He said he wanted Texans to know his and Jill Biden’s prayers are with them in the aftermath of the storm.
“We will be true partners in helping you recover and rebuild after the storms, this pandemic and the economic crisis. We are here for the long haul,” he said.
Already, he said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided water, food, blankets and generators. The Environmental Protection Agency has also provided mobile labs that help test water samples so counties can lift boil water advisories. People can expect public assistance that accompanies its declaration of disaster.
“We’re not here today as Democrats or Republicans,” Biden said. “We are here today as Americans. And American leaders have a responsibility — all of us here in this parking lot — a responsibility to everyone we serve,” he said, pointing to the crowd that included Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Judge Lina Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner. “When a crisis hits our states like the one that hit Texas, it’s not a Republican or a Democrat who suffers, it’s our fellow Americans who suffer.”
Biden and Abbott’s collaboration on storm recovery highlights an overarching partnership between elected officials from both major parties, from the White House to the Statehouse.
“They need us to work, collaborate — Republicans, Democrats — working together to find solutions for Texans to make sure they don’t have to go through this again,” the US rep said this week. State Chris Paddie, R-Marshall. .
“We need to fix this,” State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, said this week. “And we need to fix it quickly.”
Understand the damage
President Biden’s first stop was the Harris County Emergency Operations Center, where Judge Lina Hidalgo greeted him and explained that the people who worked there “were the tip of the spear when he s it’s about fighting for our community. They slept in the stairwells.
“They were here every night last week,” Hidalgo said.
“You save people’s lives. As my mother would say, you are doing God’s work,” Biden said.
Kidd said Texas is still working to understand the extent of the damage, including how many people had broken pipes. He said nearly 12 million bottles of water have been distributed in the state and more than 4,600 school buildings in more than 700 districts across Texas have broken pipes.
“We have a long way to go, Mr President,” he said.
FEMA said the federal government has spent $20 million on Texas so far. Kidd estimated Monday that Texas had spent more than $41 million and expects to be reimbursed for three-quarters of that amount. Local governments spent at least $50 million.
Biden’s visit came as the Federal Emergency Management Agency added 18 additional counties to the president’s major disaster declaration for individual assistance. Those counties were included in Texas’ request submitted Thursday asking that 54 counties be added to the declaration. Biden noted that he was open to expanding the statement but needed more data. Kidd pointed out that many counties are struggling to provide that in the wake of the storms.
“Although it’s here in Houston – Harris County – the same issues are happening across the state of Texas. … I think being here in Houston, Harris County also speaks to what he intends to do on every level,” Hidalgo said.
Houstonian Mohammad Ali lost power for two days and went without water even longer. His house suffered water damage. Broken pipes caused plumbing problems.
“I saw the water coming into my living room,” Ali said, hoping to get help soon. “Helping each other is a test of what humanity is, you know, as humans we have to help each other.”
Get help for those in need
First lady Dr. Jill Biden spent much of her time in Texas learning about and volunteering at the Houston Food Bank, where President Biden later joined her. As well as hearing about the operations of the food bank, which impact manager Nicole Lander says has distributed an average of 18 million pounds in disasters, they also volunteered with Governor Abbott and the First Lady of Texas Cecilia Abbott, helping to pack the boxes.
They also had the chance to speak with volunteers helping at the food bank, including a younger brother and sister who were with their mother to help sort bags of chips and boxes of cookies into bins.
Biden leaned in, telling the girl his own sister is his best friend and admitted, “She’s smarter than me. She is better than me. Later, the girl and Biden hugged, and she also ran over to hug her brother too.
When asked what he thinks of the nation’s largest food bank, Biden replied, “Incredible. Incredible. It’s absolutely amazing, and we could do so much more.
Continue to fight the pandemic
Biden’s latest remarks took place at one of FEMA’s three COVID-19 mass vaccination sites in Texas, which also include those in Dallas and Arlington.
NRG Stadium has 11 drive-thru lanes that dish out 6,000 shots every day to those with appointments. The site opened on February 24 and will remain open seven days a week. People can register at county and city websites to get vaccinated.
“I met today with Governor Abbott, Senator Cornyn – conservative Republicans. I am a Democratic President. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Biden said. “But there are a lot of things we can work on together, and one of them is represented right here today: the effort to speed up vaccinations.”
“We cover the costs for the states, including the use of their national guards,” Biden said. The military has been working on the federal site he has been talking about since Friday evening.
“By centrally locating a vaccination site here at NRG Park, we are able to, their goal is to serve 6,000 Houstonians a day,” United Service Organizations’ Loren Westerfield said Friday outside the Houston hub.
The USO works to maintain soldier morale, regardless of the mission.
“They worked non-stop,” Westerfield said.
“Some of the statistics I’ve seen show that only 10 percent of the US military feels like Americans, American civilians understand the sacrifices they make,” Westerfield continued, “Having the support of the USO and therefore the Support from American people is essential to their morale and understanding of the importance of their work and what they do.
The first sergeant at the Houston site, Sgt. DaShon Hall, said soldiers’ shifts start when it’s still dark and often don’t end until the sun goes down.
“Thousands of people’s lives we can save. So it’s super impactful. And these guys are doing a great job,” said Sgt. Hall said Friday.
Biden underscored his initial pledge to get 100 million gunshots (which in late January he increased to 150 million). He said when he was first inaugurated, 6 million vaccines were distributed across the country, and now that number is on track to be 12 million every week.
He said his administration is working to help vaccine makers do more and the effort continues to increase the number of people available to donate vaccines and places where people can receive them.
“I want to show the American people the extraordinary effort that is being made and undertaken,” all through the logistical challenges, Biden said.
He added that while cases and hospitalizations have recently fallen, new variants could lead to further increases. He urged people to continue washing their hands, social distancing and wearing a mask.
“It’s not a political statement — it’s a patriotic thing to do,” Biden said, adding “the worst thing we can do is let our guard down.”
In the coming months, Biden said his administration will work on education campaigns related to vaccines.
Biden mentioned being in Houston previously when his son Beau was receiving cancer treatment. He spoke of the hope that, during his administration, researchers and doctors would be able to end cancer, and marveled that last week the The United States had landed another rover on Mars.
“No one in the world can compete with us when we’re together,” he said.
Faith Woodard and Daniel Galvan contributed to this report.