WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden traveled to Houston on Friday to survey the damage from Texas' recent historic winter storm, the president’s first trip as commander in chief to a state following a natural disaster.
Biden met with state and local officials about the recovery efforts at the Harris County Emergency Operations Center in Houston, commending them for putting together a "hell of an operation," before he and first lady Jill Biden toured a local food bank to thank volunteers.
The winter storm earlier this month pummeled Texas and the surrounding region, leaving millions without power, heat and water for days. Millions of Texans remain under advisement to boil their drinking water and many are also facing food shortages and sky-high electricity bills.
"Jill and I wanted to visit Texas today for a couple of reasons," Biden said. "First and foremost: to let the people of Texas know our prayers are with you in the aftermath of this winter storm. And secondly, ... to let you know we will be true partners to help you recover and rebuild from the storms and this pandemic and the economic crisis."
The Texas storm hit just as Biden announced his administration was working to open three federally-backed mass vaccination sites in the state as part of his goal to rapidly deploy vaccines around the country in a race against the spread of new Covid-19 variants.
The storm delayed the delivery of hundreds of thousands of doses to Texas, but Biden, speaking from one of the mass vaccination sites at Houston's NRG Stadium Friday evening, said that the country was on track to surpass his goal of administering 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office.
"We're weeks ahead of schedule, even with the setbacks in the winter storm. We're moving in the right direction," Biden said, adding that he carries a card in his pocket that's updated daily with the number of shots that have been deployed since he took office.
Shortly before Biden spoke, a key advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration voted to recommend that the agency authorize Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine. The FDA is expected to follow the recommendation, making a third vaccine available.
Biden promised to "use every conceivable way to expand the third vaccine" and said that having another vaccine available would allow the country "to make even more rapid progress and getting shots in people's arms."
At the Harris County Emergency Operations Center earlier, local officials briefed Biden on the devastating impacts of the winter storm that have been compounded with the economic and health crisis caused by the pandemic.
In Harris County alone, officials said that 1.5 million residents lost power and heat and 3.5 million lost water. More than 10,000 households reported burst pipes, according to the officials, and the county was still working to repair the damaged homes. The Harris County Emergency Operations Center had delivered more than 12 million bottles of water to residents, officials told Biden.
Some Texans who did not lose power have been hit with massive electricity bills because scarce power radically spiked prices in the state's market-based system. The state has also been criticized for keeping its electrical grid separate from the rest of the country and lack of storm preparation, which made the system vulnerable to blackouts.
Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall, who accompanied Biden to Houston, said that the goal of Friday's trip was not to criticize Texas for its lack of preparation or to convince leaders to create more resilient systems.
"Fundamentally, the first decision has to be made by the state of Texas about what kind of energy system it wants to maintain, what kind of energy market it wants to maintain, and whether the financial incentives are structured for the kind of investment that needs to be made in resilience," she said.
Biden was joined Friday by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who has been criticized by a number of Democrats for his response to the storm.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also joined Biden at the emergency center, as well as Democratic Reps. Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, who represent the Houston area.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on the way to Houston that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had not been invited to join the president on Friday's trip. Cruz lives in Houston.
"There was neither an invitation or a request for him to attend," Psaki said. "There are a number of members of both parties attending and joining the president on the trip."
Cruz, who spent Friday in Florida at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, was ridiculed after he traveled with his family last week to Cancún, Mexico as Texans were in crisis. Cruz returned home within hours of landing in Mexico amid swift backlash and apologized for the trip, calling it a "mistake."
Biden, who declared a major disaster in Texas last weekend, indicated earlier that he was interested in visiting the state but said he would wait until his presence would not be a burden on recovery efforts.
Psaki said that Biden asked the acting FEMA director in a phone call last week when it would be appropriate for him to visit because "he likes to see the details and likes to see things in person, and he wants to see how the public is engaging and have those conversations."
"It's important to him to hear directly from people on what their needs are," Psaki said.
At least 40 people in Texas have died as a result of the storm, according to The Associated Press.