Biden declares main catastrophe in Texas, greater than 15 million instructed to boil water after energy failure

City workers and volunteers distribute bottled water at Delmar Stadium, in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2021.

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President Joe Biden has approved a major disaster declaration for Texas as the state grapples with widespread power outages and water shortages amid freezing winter conditions, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced on Saturday.

The action unlocks federal funding for individuals in Texas, grants for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses. Millions of Texans have struggled with power outages and more than half the state is experiencing disrupted water service with boil-water notices in effect.

Biden’s declaration makes aid available to individuals in 77 counties in Texas. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott had requested a major disaster declaration for all 254 counties. The White House said it’s working closely with Abbott, and more counties could be included after further assessment of the damage.

“I thank President Biden for his assistance as we respond to impacts of winter weather across our state,” Abbott said in a statement. “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.”

Biden plans to visit Texas as soon as next week to assess the federal response.

The declaration also provides funding for cost-sharing with state and local governments and some private nonprofit organizations for emergency protective measures and hazard mitigation measures. Dozens of counties will be able to access the aid.

More than 15.1 million people are facing water disruptions on Saturday in Texas after freezing conditions disrupted more than 1,300 public water systems and led to boil water notices, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said Saturday.

The federal government has already approved emergency declarations for Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana and has sent supplies like generators, blankets, water and meals to Texas last week.

“This is great news for the people of Dallas after a horrible week,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson wrote in a tweet. “The damage caused by this storm is extensive, and the disaster declaration will help our city recover.”

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The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) said on Friday that it returned to normal conditions and restored power for millions of customers. More than 60,000 people in Texas still didn’t have power as of 4:00 p.m. ET Saturday, according to data from PowerOutage.us.

The cold conditions caused energy usage and power prices to soar, which caused some Texas households to face electricity bills as high as $10,000. Michael McCaul, R-Texas., said during an interview on CNN on Sunday that officials will use the disaster relief funding from the administration to help people hit with high bills.

A shopper walks past a bare shelf as people stock up on necessities at the H-E-B grocery store on February 18, 2021 in Austin, Texas.

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Chief Nim Kidd of the Texas Division of Emergency Management said Saturday at a press briefing that bottled water distribution is still the number one priority.

The state has ordered 9.9 million water bottles and has received a total of 5.5 million bottles. The military is delivering water and food by aircraft as utilities in the state work to restore water service.

Roughly 156,000 people still have no water at all, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Executive Director Toby Baker said Saturday. “I understand the public is extremely frustrated right now,” Baker said. 

In addition to the major disaster declaration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday issued an emergency fuel waiver for Texas. The waiver, effective immediately, permits the state to temporarily forgo certain fuel standards to combat gas shortages in impacted areas.

Texas refiners had paused roughly a fifth of the country’s oil production during the outages and freezing temperatures. Oil prices fell from recent highs on Friday as firms prepared to restart production as power services resume.

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