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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 3 March 2021

Biden approves 'major disaster' declaration in frozen Texas

The action makes federal funding available to affected individuals

Water is loaded into the trunk of a car at a Houston water distribution site on February 19, 2021. AP
Water is loaded into the trunk of a car at a Houston water distribution site on February 19, 2021. AP

President Joe Biden on Saturday approved the declaration of major disaster in Texas, clearing the way for more federal aid to the southern US state where a crippling winter storm caused days of power blackouts, burst water pipes and food shortages.

The action makes federal funding available to affected individuals, including assistance for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans.

Texas's Republican Governor Greg Abbott thanked the president for approving the major disaster declaration, saying in a statement that it was "an important first step."

He did add though that individual assistance had only been approved for 77 counties, not all the state's 254 counties as requested.

Mr Biden declared a state of emergency on Texas on Monday, a move that allowed federal agencies to assist state and local emergency services.

A major disaster, according the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is declared when the president deems that the situation “has caused damage of such severity that it is beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments to respond”.

Nearly half of Texans were struggling on Friday with disrupted water service, although the state's embattled power grid sprang back to life after five days of blackouts.

All the state's power plants were functioning again on Friday morning, but more than 195,000 homes remained without electricity and more than 14.4 million people in 160 out of 254 Texas counties had water service disruptions, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Nearly two dozen deaths have been attributed to the cold snap. Officials say they suspect many more have died, but the bodies have not yet been discovered.

What happened this week to our fellow Texans is absolutely unacceptable and can never be replicated again.

Greg Abbott, Texas Governor

Jennifer Jordan, 54, of Midlothian, just south of Dallas, said she and her husband were without power even though the family's online account with the provider indicated their issues had been "resolved."

"I have no power at my house — not one drop of power," the high school special education teacher said in an interview. "It’s really hard. You are really longing to get a hot shower, eat a hot meal."

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

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

Millions of people were ordered to boil their drinking water after water-treatment plants lost power.

In Houston, a mass distribution of bottled water was planned 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.

Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, which includes Houston, said she was pleased with the progress, but warned residents to brace for more hardship.

"The grid is still fragile," she said, noting cold weather would persist for a few days, which would "put pressure on these power plants that have just come back on."

She also said on Friday that authorities were reporting 10 deaths caused by hypothermia.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott confirmed that all power-generating plants were online as of Thursday afternoon. He urged politicians to pass legislation to ensure the grid was prepared for cold weather in the future.

"What happened this week to our fellow Texans is absolutely unacceptable and can never be replicated again," Mr Abbott told an afternoon news conference.

The governor lashed out at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), a co-operative responsible for 90 per cent of the state's electricity, which he said had told officials before the storm that the grid was prepared.

Officials said during a press call on Friday that Ercot has enough generation in its system to return to normal operations.

Two community hospitals that are part of the Houston Methodist system in Texas's largest city had to get "creative" when their water supply was cut off this week, said public relations director Stefanie Asin. A shower trailer was brought in for freezing, exhausted staff and laundry bins were deployed to collect rainwater to flush toilets.

As of Friday, water service had been restored at those hospitals, Ms Asin said in an interview. "The water will be challenging. ... We've handled it so far, we'll continue handling it. ... But we'll still need to take precautions," she said.

How Texans have been affected by the winter storm - in pictures

Updated: February 20, 2021 11:04 PM

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