By Todd J. Gillman | Dallas Morning News

HOUSTON  President Joe Biden visited Houston on Friday afternoon to survey the aftermath of last week’s winter storms and the statewide grid collapse that left millions of Texans without power and heat in sub-zero weather.

Gov. Greg Abbott, playing chaperone as the new president visits the state’s largest COVID-19 vaccination “super site,” is pressing for him to add more counties to the major disaster declaration issued a week ago as Texas began to recover from a disaster both natural and manmade. On Friday morning, 18 more counties were added to the declaration by the Biden administration.

So far, 126 of the state’s 254 counties are on the list.

Demands are growing in Washington to end Texas’ independence from the national power grid, a decadeslong tradition that has kept federal regulators at bay.

Those cries may grow louder as Texans presses for more aid, particularly if state leaders try to get federal taxpayers to subsidize retrofits of gas lines, power plants and wind turbines. Federal regulators urged such weatherization a decade ago but lacked the authority to enforce the suggestion.

Sen. John Cornyn, who joined Biden and Abbott in Houston, is proposing federal grants to help weatherize the Texas grid, a project that could cost tens of millions.

Aides to Sen. Ted Cruz said the White House did not invite him, though Cruz was already scheduled to be in Orlando to address the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday morning. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there was neither an invitation, nor a request from Cruz, to join the president.

At the Harris County Emergency Operations Center, County Judge Lina Hidalgo welcomed the president.

“This has been our home away from home for five months” through a pandemic and then last week’s crisis of bitter cold that knocked out power, heat and drinking water, she said. Hidalgo gushed about the hard work of the county’s emergency staff. “These folks 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.”

“Mr. President your support means the world to us,” she said.

Biden replied: “Hell of an operation here. It’s probably the best one in the country…. You’re saving peoples’ lives. As my mother would say, you’re doing God’s work.”

The president also thanked Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner for the “passport” allowing him to come to Texas.

Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, had a color coded map of Texas showing the vast areas of the state not yet under a federal major disaster declaration. FEMA and the administration have said they’re open to more designations but need data to back it up. Kidd made the case that the crisis itself has kept many counties from collecting and reporting the data demanded after seven days of sub-freezing temps.

“We have a lot of families and businesses and importantly schools that have not yet been able to submit their damage assessments to us,” Kidd said.

“We want to continue to work closely with our local partners grabbing that assessment, and with our federal partners to get that information to us so we can make the best decision possible for all of us,” he said, adding that at least 4,600 school buildings across the state have broken water pipes. “We’ve got a long way to go. Mr. President, I know we can get through this together and we’ve just got to keep going.”

Hidalgo said the quick response from FEMA and the administration was appreciated.

“Them coming here gives hope you know — it’s a community that needs hope. It’s a community that’s been just been, you know, torn down so many times now. It’s just disaster after disaster,” she said.

And Turner said that he expects Biden to do more for the state than just in Harris County.

“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.” Turner said.

Biden has steered well clear of the finger pointing triggered by the grid collapse, and aides were adamant that he will bring only empathy and reassurance that help is coming, while refraining from lectures about the wisdom of Texas’ ardor for deregulation.

Homeland Security Adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, briefing reporters on Air Force One, said the administration wants to find ways to incentivize Texas to retrofit its grid but declined to elaborate. Given that Texas has made a decision over the years to maintain an “autonomous grid… the question now going forward is whether the state of Texas decides that it wants to move in the direction of bringing more resilience on its own system.”

“We look forward to meeting with Governor Abbott and other state and local leaders to learn more about the recovery situation on the ground, and what more we can do to help,” Sherwood-Randall said. “As you know, the President directed us to rapidly mobilize as many federal resources as possible to assist Texas’ recovery efforts, along with recovery efforts in the other states that were affected by the severe winter storm improperly.”

She said as of Thursday afternoon, FEMA had already awarded over $9 million in individual assistance grants to Texans.

“As we continue to learn more in the coming days and weeks, one thing we know for sure is we cannot treat what happened in Texas, and in the whole region of the south as an isolated event,” Sherwood-Randall said. “The impacts reflect our shared vulnerabilities through extreme weather events and other threats, and the need for collective action to modernize our critical infrastructure across the country so that we can meet the full spectrum of challenges that we will face in the future, going forward with a very close collaboration among the federal government, states, communities and importantly private sector, to incentivize the kinds of actions that need to be taken to build the kind of resilient infrastructure that we can truly depend on.”

In his campaign, Biden pledged to modernize the nation’s electric grid and make it more resilient. It’s unclear how that could be done without the Texas grid being part of the mix. The rest of the country is part of one of two huge multistate grids that allow operators to shift electricity as needed when one region has problems.

Turner, the Houston mayor and former state representative, said that the state’s power grid should have been revamped to withstand catastrophic events a long time ago.

“It should have started in 2011. The state of Texas went to a market driven approach, hoping that by allowing these power generators to increase their charge for megawatt hours from a few thousand to $9,000 per megawatt that would have incentivize people to weatherize the system. It did not work,” he said. “But the Public Utility Commission should have mandated ERCOT to have sufficient reserves to prevent blackouts. That was precisely the bill that I filed in 2011, House Bill 1986.”

Turner said that Texans are going to demand change.

After the Emergency Operations Center visit, Biden headed to the Houston Food Bank, where he and first lady Jill Biden met with volunteers and packaged food and water for local residents in need.

At the food bank, CEO Brian Greene walked slowly down Aisle 14 with the Bidens explaining the operation. The president talked to employees and volunteers, including some children.

Asked what he thought of the food bank, he said, “Incredible. Amazing. It’s absolutely amazing, and we could do so much more.”

At NRG Park, the site of one of the three FEMA vaccination sites in Texas, he talked about the bipartisan desire to speed vaccinations.

“There’s nothing partisan about this virus,” he said.

He noted that Abbott and Cornyn are both “conservative Republicans, plenty of things we disagree with” but we all agree on goal of speeding up vaccinations.

Biden also vowed ongoing help to Texas.

“When a crisis hits our states, it’s not a Republican or Democrat who’s hurting. It’s a fellow American who’s hurting,” Biden said in a parking lot outside NRG Stadium after visiting with Air Force personnel administering COVID-19 vaccine shots nearby at the “super site” opened two days earlier by FEMA, big enough to provide 6,000 shots a day.

“ My prayers are with you in the aftermath of the storm,” he said. “We will be true partners to help you cover the bill for the storm and this pandemic.”

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