Federal aid moved into Texas and other states Thursday amid a winter storm that left more than 1 million people shivering in the dark after the state’s independent power grid failed. Alabama and Louisiana also saw widespread electrical outages.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden was “working every lever that we have at our disposal through the federal government to get relief to the people of Texas,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
That aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency included 60 generators with fuel for hospitals and water facilities, 729,000 liters of water, 60,000 blankets and 225,000 meals, White House homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall said.
In a tweet noting the FEMA assistance, Biden said he was ready to fulfill additional requests for help from the governors of Texas, Oklahoma and other states. His tweet ended: “Please heed the instructions of local officials and stay safe.”
Jill and I are keeping Texas, Oklahoma, and other impacted states in our prayers. I’ve declared states of emergency, authorized FEMA to provide generators and supplies, and am ready to fulfill additional requests. Please heed the instructions of local officials and stay safe.— President Biden (@POTUS) February 18, 2021
All power-generating plants in Texas have gone back online, but 325,000 households are still without electricity thanks to downed lines and other issues, according to Governor Greg Abbott, who also announced that more than 13 million Texans do not have water services.
Thousands of people in Texas, the country’s second-biggest state, had lined up in subfreezing temperatures, which the state rarely experiences, to receive propane and water.
The cold has also caused household pipes to burst. For many of those who do have functioning plumbing, the water is not safe to drink.
In Harris County, Texas — which includes Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city — more than 1 million people either had no water or were instructed to boil it before consuming it.
A similar advisory was in effect in Austin, the state capital, after a power failure at the city’s largest water treatment facility.
The crisis in Texas could have been much worse, the operators of the state’s power grid said Thursday.
The Texas grid was “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic failure that could have caused uncontrolled blackouts for months, said officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the power grid for 90% of the state.
Grid operators had to act quickly to cut the amount of power distributed, ERCOT President Bill Magness said, because if they had waited, “then what happens in that next minute might be that three more [power generation] units come offline, and then you’re sunk.”
Abbott, the governor, has called for the state Legislature to investigate ERCOT and “ensure Texans never again experience power outages on the scale they have seen over the past several days.”
ERCOT operates independently of the country’s primary eastern and western power grids, and that severely limits the amount of electricity that be transferred in and out of Texas.
According to ERCOT, 800 megawatts daily can be transferred through connections to the eastern grid and 400 megawatts per day through the Mexican grid, but that total is insufficient to meet Texas’ current needs.
“There is a need to assess and take a look at how we protect and support critical infrastructure across the country, including our national energy grids, and ensure that we are better prepared in the future,” Psaki told reporters during Thursday’s audio-only briefing, which was held online amid a shutdown of federal offices in Washington because of hazardous winter weather.
The extreme weather across much of the United States this week again demonstrated “climate change is real, and it's happening now. And we're not adequately prepared for it,” Sherwood-Randall told reporters during the virtual briefing with Psaki.
The homeland security adviser added that power grids in Texas and across the country “are overloaded by the demands that are placed on them under these circumstances. And the infrastructure is not built to withstand these extreme conditions.”
The Biden administration “will be leading an effort to strengthen and harden our critical infrastructure so that it can be prepared to meet the full spectrum of challenges that we're likely to face in the future,” Sherwood-Randall said.
Asked about the cost and specifics of such projects, White House officials were unable to provide any detailed information.
“I don't have anything to preview for you, other than to convey that our focus is on the emergency at hand,” Psaki responded.
At least 30 fatalities
The massive storm system has been blamed for at least 30 deaths in the U.S. this week. In the Houston area, The Associated Press reported, one family died from carbon monoxide poisoning from car exhaust in their garage, while a grandmother and three children were killed by flames that escaped the fireplace they were using to keep warm.
The National Weather Service said the storm was moving across several states on a 2,300-kilometer (1,430-mile) track to the Northeast, with 38 centimeters (15 inches) of snow on the ground in the state of Arkansas, which is northeast of Texas, heavy snow and ice farther north through the Appalachian Mountains and up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) of snow predicted Thursday and Friday in the New York metropolitan region.
In addition to residents' outrage at elected leaders and other officials in several states for insufficient storm preparation, one U.S. senator faced particular condemnation for an ill-timed vacation.
The Texas Democratic Party is calling for the resignation of Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who left his home state Wednesday with his family for Cancun, Mexico.
The senator, in a statement released Thursday, acknowledged the suffering Texans were experiencing, noting, “Our homes are freezing and our lights are out. Like millions of Texans, our family lost heat and power, too.”
'A good dad'
Cruz explained that he took a commercial flight to the sunny beach resort south of the border at the request of his daughters because school had been canceled.
"Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon,” he said.
Cruz “is emblematic of what the Texas Republican Party and its leaders have become: weak, corrupt, inept and self-serving politicians who don't give a damn about the people they were elected to represent,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said.
“Our focus is on and working directly with leadership in Texas and the surrounding states on addressing the winter storm and the crisis at hand, the many people across the state who are without power without the resources they need,” Psaki, the White House press secretary, said when asked about Cruz’s vacation. “And we expect that would be the focus of anyone in the state or surrounding states who was elected to represent them, but I don't have any update on his whereabouts.”