HOUSTON (NewsNation Now) — President Joe Biden headed to Texas, where the weather has warmed but more than 1 million residents still face water supply issues following a brutal winter storm.
Biden and first lady Jill Biden departed Washington early Friday to spend the day in Houston. It’s the president’s first official trip to a major disaster site since taking office over a month ago.
They visited a food bank and meet with local leaders to discuss relief efforts following the severe winter weather that led to widespread power outages and boil water orders.
The president was welcomed by Gov. Greg Abbott, Sen. John Cornyn, four Democratic Houston-area members of Congress, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
“Hell of an operation here. It’s probably the best one in the country,” Biden said. “You’re saving peoples’ lives. As my mother would say, you’re doing God’s work.”
As of Thursday, 126 of 254 Texas counties are under a federal major disaster declaration.
FEMA and the Biden administration have said they’re open to more designations but need data to support those counties in need.
“We have a lot of families and businesses and importantly schools that have not yet been able to submit their damage assessments to us,” Nim Kidd, Chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management 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.”
Kidd added 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,” Kidd said.
The storms battered multiple states, and Texas bore the brunt of the unseasonably frigid conditions. Millions of residents lost heat and running water, while frozen pipes burst and flooded homes. At least 40 people in Texas died as a result of the storm.
The state’s governor has received backlash over the massive outages and lack of storm preparation, while Abbott has laid blame on the state’s electric grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
Beyond surveying damage caused by severe winter weather, the president’s visit also was aimed to encourage residents to get their coronavirus vaccine shots. Biden is expected to deliver remarks at Houston’s NRG Stadium, a mass coronavirus vaccination center run by the federal government.
Biden on Thursday commemorated the 50 millionth COVID-19 vaccination since he took office, halfway toward his goal of 100 million shots by his 100th day in office. That celebration followed a moment of silence to mark the passage earlier this week of 500,000 U.S. deaths blamed on the virus.
But the White House said Biden’s purpose in visiting would be to support, not scold.
“The president doesn’t view the crisis and the millions of people who’ve been impacted by it as a Democratic or Republican issue,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. “He views it as an issue where he’s eager to get relief, to tap into all the resources in the federal government, to make sure the people of Texas know we’re thinking about them, we’re fighting for them and we’re going to continue working on this as they’re recovering.”
The Associated Press and NewsNation Affiliate KXAN contributed to this report.