Biden Visits Storm-Battered Texas and Vows Federal Help ‘For the Long Haul’


WASHINGTON — At an emergency response center in Houston on Friday, President Biden praised officials who had slept in stairwells as they worked around the clock to help people with no power or drinkable water because of the devastating storms, low temperatures and breakdown of basic utilities that had paralyzed Texas.

At a food bank, Mr. Biden hugged a little girl who was volunteering, then talked to a woman about the death of his eldest son, once again plugging into the pain of others by accessing his own.

Later, when visiting a stadium converted into a mass-vaccination site that will administer shots into the arms of some 6,000 Texans a day, Mr. Biden offered reassurance that the federal government would be working to provide clean water, blankets, food, fuel and shelter to people struggling to rebuild their lives in the state.

“We will be true partners to help you recover,” Mr. Biden said. “We’re in for the long haul.”

Infrastructure and coronavirus relief may be on the official agenda in Washington, but the overwhelming nature of grief has been the unofficial theme this week for a White House confronted with a pandemic that has resulted in a catastrophic loss of life and now a disaster in the nation’s second largest state.

Not every president comes naturally to the role of comforting the afflicted, but Mr. Biden, who lost his first wife and has buried two children, is the rare politician who seems to draw strength from the experience.

“He provided a lot of hope to people who know that their suffering is not going unnoticed,” Sylvester Turner, the Democratic mayor of Houston, said in an interview. “He is respondent in a very quick fashion, and his presence here means a great deal to a lot of people.”

Mr. Biden began the week by presiding over a solemn observance of the most recent milestone of the pandemic: more than 500,000 Americans dead.

“While we have been fighting this pandemic for so long, we have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” he said during a speech at the White House Monday night.

And when he traveled to Houston with Jill Biden, the first lady, the president used the power of his office for the first time to show support for a community ravaged by twin crises.

“You’re saving peoples’ lives,” Mr. Biden told a group of emergency medical workers at an emergency operations center. “As my mother would say, you’re doing God’s work.”

In Harris County, which includes Houston, about 50 percent of its 4.9 million residents lost power as the storms hit. Nearly two weeks later, about 10,000 residents were still boiling their water, according to county officials, and more than 50,000 across the state were still under boil notices, according to officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As soon as Mr. Biden touched the ground in Texas, he set a different tone than his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, who more than once threatened to withhold federal funding from states recovering from disasters because he had toxic political relationships with state officials there.

Mr. Biden, who has been pushing a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package with very little Republican support, was joined by Republicans elected officials who praised him for approving a major disaster declaration for Texas, ensuring the flow of federal resources to some 126 counties across the state that were hit by the storms. That is about half the counties that Gov. Greg Abbott, who joined Mr. Biden on the trip, requested be covered under the declaration. Damage from the storms is expected to exceed $20 billion, according to the Insurance Council of Texas.

“The governor and Senator Cruz and I asked for a declaration from the federal government which provides access to public and private assistance through FEMA,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and another participant on the trip, referring to the state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, who was in Florida, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “That’s going to be important for our recovery.”

“It’s nice that Senator Cornyn’s here,” Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official of Harris County, told reporters who asked her about Mr. Cruz’s absence. “It’s nice that Governor Abbott is here. It’s a very important example of unity.”

At the food bank, Dr. Biden slipped cans of peaches into packages of food for students who rely on free school meals while the president talked to children and told them about his own family.

It was a marked difference from Mr. Trump, who in 2018 was criticized for visiting a disaster relief center in Puerto Rico, only to throw paper towels at survivors of a Category 5 hurricane. “I was having fun,” Mr. Trump said afterward. “They were having fun.”

Mr. Biden struck a more reassuring — and less partisan — tone than his predecessor.

“We’re not here today as Democrats or Republicans,” Mr. Biden said. “We’re here today as Americans.”

Maria Jimenez Moya contributed reporting from Houston.

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