HOUSTON (KXAN/Nexstar) — President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden descended from Air Force One onto the tarmac in Houston, greeted by Gov. Greg Abbott, other local and state leaders and a balmy 77°. The weather was a sharp contrast to devastating winter storms that passed through the state just two weeks ago, leaving millions without power or water.
After a full day visiting Harris County’s Emergency Operations Center, the Houston Food Bank and a mass COVID-19 vaccination site at NRG stadium, he thanked leaders like Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. John Cornyn for meeting with 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 to help you recover and rebuild from the storms, this pandemic and the economic crisis. We’re in it 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 laboratories that are helping test water samples so counties can lift boil water notices. People can expect public assistance that comes alongside his disaster declaration.
“We’re not here today as Democrats or Republicans,” Biden said. “We’re here today as Americans. And American leaders have a responsibility — all of us here in this parking lot — responsibility to all the people we serve,” he said, gesturing 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 Democrat who’s hurting, it’s our fellow Americans who are hurting.”
Biden and Abbott’s collaboration on the storm recovery highlights a paramount partnership between elected officials of both major parties from the White House to the statehouse.
“They need us to work, collaborate— Republican, Democrat— locking arms working together to find solutions for Texans to make sure that they don’t have to experience this again,” State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, said this week.
“We’ve got to fix this,” State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, said this week. “And we’ve got to fix it quickly.”
Understanding 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 working there “have been the tip of the spear when it comes to fighting for our community. They have been sleeping in the stairwells.”
“They were here every night last week,” Hidalgo said.
“You’re saving peoples’ lives. As my mother would say, you’re doing God’s work,” Biden said.
Kidd said Texas is still working to understand the extent of the damage, including how many people have experienced broken pipes. He did say almost 12 million bottles of water have been distributed in the state and that more than 4,600 school buildings in more than 700 Texas districts had broken pipes.
“We’ve got 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 Texas has spent more than $41 million and expects to be reimbursed for three-quarters of that. Local governments have spent at least $50 million.
Biden’s visit came as the Federal Emergency Management Agency added 18 more counties to the president’s Major Disaster Declaration for individual assistance. These counties were included in Texas’ request submitted Thursday asking 54 counties be added to the declaration. Biden noted he was open to expanding the declaration but needed more data. Kidd pointed out many counties are struggling to provide that in the aftermath of the storms.
“Though he’s here in Houston — Harris County — the same issues are taking place throughout the state of Texas. … I think being here in Houston, Harris County, is also speaking to what he intends to do across the board,” Hidalgo said.
Houstonian Mohammad Ali lost power for two days and was without water even longer. His home sustained water damage. Busted pipes caused plumbing problems to pile up.
“I saw the water coming in my living room,” Ali said, hoping he can get help soon. “Helping each other is a test of what humanity is like, you know, as a human we need to help each other.”
Getting help to 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. In addition to hearing about the operations of the food bank, which Chief Impact Officer Nicole Lander said distributed an average of 18 million pounds during disasters, they along with Gov. Abbott and Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott also volunteered, helping to pack boxes.
They also had a chance to speak with volunteers helping at the food bank, including a young brother and sister who were with their mother helping sort bags of chips and boxes of cookies into bins.
Biden leaned down, telling the girl how his own sister is his best friend and admitting, “She’s smarter than I am. She’s better than I am.” Later the girl and Biden hugged, and she also ran over to hug her brother, too.
When asked what he thought of the largest food bank in the country, Biden replied, “Incredible. Amazing. It’s absolutely amazing, and we could do so much more.”
Continuing to address the pandemic
Biden’s final remarks happened at one of three FEMA mass COVID-19 vaccination sites in Texas, which also include ones in Dallas and Arlington.
NRG Stadium has 11 drive-through lanes that dole out 6,000 shots each day to those with appointments. The site first opened Feb. 24 and will remain open seven days a week. People can register at county and city websites to get vaccinated.
“I met today with Gov. Abbott, Sen. Cornyn — conservative Republicans. I’m a Democratic president. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Biden said. “But there are plenty of things we can work on together, and one of those is represented right here today: the effort to speed up vaccinations.”
“We’re covering the costs for states including the use of their national guards,” Biden said. The soldiers work at the federal site he spoke from Friday evening.
“By centrally locating a vaccination site here at NRG Park, we are able to, their goal is to actually serve 6000 Houstonians per day,” Loren Westerfield with the United Service Organizations said outside the Houston hub on Friday.
USO works to life soldiers’ morale, no matter what the mission.
“They’ve been working nonstop,” Westerfield said.
“Some of the statistics I’ve seen show that only 10% of the American military feel like Americans, civilian Americans understand the sacrifices they’re making,” Westerfield continued, “Having the support of the USO and therefore the support of the American people is vital to their morale and understanding how important their job is and what they do.”
The first sergeant at the Houston site, Sgt. DaShon Hall, said soldiers’ shifts begin when it’s still dark, and often don’t finish until the sunsets.
“This is 1000s of people’s lives we’re able to save. So it’s super impactful. And these guys are doing an excellent job,” Sgt. Hall said Friday.
Biden emphasized his initial pledge to get 100 million shots into arms (which at the end of January he increased to 150 million). He said when he was first inaugurated, 6 million shots were being given out across the nation, and now that number is on track to be 12 million each week.
He said his administration worked to help vaccine manufacturers make more, and that the effort continues to be increasing the number of people available to give out shots and places for people to receive them.
“I want to show the American people the extraordinary effort being made and undertaken,” throughout the logistical challenges, Biden said.
He added that while cases and hospitalizations have recently trended down, new variants could lead to more increases. He urged people to continue to wash hands, social distance and wear a mask.
“It’s not a political statement — it’s a patriotic thing to do,” Biden said, adding the “worst thing we could do is let our guard down.”
In the coming months, Biden said his administration would work on education campaigns related to the vaccines.
Biden mentioned being in Houston previously when his son Beau was receiving cancer treatment. He spoke about a hope that during his administration, researchers and doctors would be able to end cancer, and marveled that just last week the U.S. had landed another rover on Mars.
“Nobody in the world can compete with us when we’re together,” he said.
Faith Woodard and Daniel Galvan contributed to this report.