Biden approves major disaster declaration for Texas as South faces water crisis


AUSTIN, Texas (NewsNation Now) — President Joe Biden has approved a major disaster declaration for Texas, where millions are struggling to cope with water shortages after being left without power for days due to widespread utility blackouts.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced a disaster declaration for 77 Texas counties on Saturday. The action makes federal funding available to individuals across the state, including assistance for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans.

Texans in approved counties can register here for assistance.

“While this partial approval is an important first step, Texas will continue to work with our federal partners to ensure all eligible Texans have access to the relief they need,” Gov. Abbott said in a statement Saturday.

Nearly two dozen deaths have been attributed to the storm and a cold snap. Officials say they suspect many more have died, but the remains have not been discovered.

On Friday, more than 14 million Texans had to endure disrupted water service, leaving many longing for a hot shower just as the state’s power grid jerked back to life after five days of blackouts. The state has ordered 9.9 million water bottles and so far it has received 5.5 million bottles, according to Chief Nim Kidd of the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Two million bottles have been delivered and another million are expected to be doled out Saturday.

The Texas Military says it has deployed about 3,200 members who are currently delivering water and food by aircraft. Officials say several planes are conducting multiple missions a day and North Carolina Military is also lending a plane.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Executive Director Toby Baker said local utilities are working 24 hours daily to restore water service in Texas. As of Saturday afternoon, 14.3 million Texans are impacted which is down from 14.9 million on Friday. The TCEQ says 156,000 people are without water, which is down by half. At this point, 64 boil water notices have been rescinded and TCEQ says about 1,445 systems around the state have boil water notices. Officials say lack of power, frozen pipes and high demand are contributing factors hampering water restoration efforts.

Gov. Abbott called an emergency meeting for Saturday afternoon with key state lawmakers to address ways to “ensure that Texans are not on the hook for unreasonable spikes in their energy bills” after widespread power outages during and after the storm.

“It is unacceptable for Texans who suffered through days in the freezing cold without electricity or heat to now be hit with skyrocketing energy costs,” Abbott said.

A warming trend is expected to relieve some of the pressure on the region on Saturday, the National Weather Service said.

“One more night of below freezing temperatures at some areas, then a warm up is expected into the weekend,” the weather service’s Houston office wrote on Twitter on Friday.

Biden is weighing a trip to Texas to survey the federal response to the first new crisis to develop since he took office a month ago.

“If I can do it without creating a burden for folks, I plan on going,” Biden said.

In parts of the state, frozen roads remained impassable. Ice-downed lines and other issues had utility workers scrambling to reconnect homes to power, while oil and gas producers look for ways to renew output.

Hospitals in some hard-hit areas ran out of water and transferred patients elsewhere.

“We’re overwhelmed, way more than we’ve been with COVID,” said Dr. Natasha Kathuria, who works in several Austin-area emergency rooms. “This system failure has completely rocked us in our ERs – and in our own homes.”

Doctors in Austin, Houston and the Dallas area called the lack of water their biggest problem. Dialysis machines do not work without water, surgery equipment cannot be sterilized, and hands cannot be washed.

In Houston, a mass distribution of bottled water opened at Delmar Stadium on Friday, the city’s Office of Emergency Management said. Around midday, the line of cars waiting to enter the stadium stretched for at least half a mile, one police officer told Reuters.

But the water shortage issues aren’t just confined to Texas.

About 260,000 homes and businesses in the Tennessee county that includes Memphis were told to boil water because of water main ruptures and pumping station problems. Restaurants that can’t do so or don’t have bottled water were ordered to close. And water pressure problems prompted Memphis International Airport to cancel all incoming and outgoing Friday flights.

In Jackson, Mississippi, most of the city of about 161,000 had no running water. Crews pumped water to refill city tanks but faced a shortage of chemicals for treatment because icy roads made it difficult for distributors to deliver them, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said.

He said the city’s water mains are more than 100 years old and not built to handle the freezing weather that hit the city as multiple storms dumped record amounts of snow across the South.

“We are dealing with an extreme challenge with getting more water through our distribution system,” said Lumumba.

The city was providing water for flushing toilets and drinking, but residents had to pick it up, leaving the elderly and those living on icy roads vulnerable.

The storms also left more than 330,000 from Virginia to Louisiana without power. About 60,000 in Oregon on Friday were still enduring a weeklong outage following a massive ice and snow storm. Oregon’s governor ordered the National Guard to go door-to-door in the hardest-hit areas to ensure residents have enough food and water.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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