President Biden declares major disaster in Texas

People collect bottled water from a shelter in the city of Galveston, Texas. Photo Courtesy: Reuters

(BBC): President Joe Biden has declared a major disaster in Texas, clearing the way for more federal funds to be spent on relief efforts in the US state.

Power is returning across Texas and temperatures are set to rise but some 13 million people are still facing difficulties accessing clean water.

Mr Biden has said he will visit Texas as long as his presence is not a burden on relief efforts.

Nearly 60 deaths have been attributed to cold weather across the US.

In a statement released by the White House, President Biden said he had “ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by severe winter storms”.

“Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programmes to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster,” the statement said.

Mr Biden has been in touch with the mayors of some of Texas’ biggest cities, such as Houston, Austin and Dallas, to ensure they have access to government resources, an administration official said.

Several other southern states hit by snow and ice storms this week have also reported water service outages.

Winter weather has also cut off water in the city of Jackson, Mississippi – home to around 150,000 people – as well as the largest county in Tennessee that includes the city of Memphis, with more than 651,000 residents.

Across the US South, a region unaccustomed to such frigid temperatures, people whose pipes have frozen have taken to boiling snow to make water.

What is happening in Texas?
The Southwestern state’s energy grid has been overwhelmed by a surge in demand for heat as temperatures plummeted to 30-year lows, hitting 0F (-18C) earlier this week.

As of Friday, about 180,000 homes and businesses in Texas still had no electricity. Amid freezing temperatures earlier this week, as many as 3.3 million were without power.

Around 13 million people – close to half of the state’s population – have faced some disruption of water services as hundreds of water systems have been damaged by the freeze.

Austin, the state’s capital, lost 325 million gallons (1.2 billion litres) of water when pipes burst, the city’s water director told reporters on Thursday.
Texas’ largest city, Houston, is under a so-called “boil water notice”, with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advising that all water planned for consumption – even if filtered – must be boiled as it may be contaminated.

Officials there say they are working to rapidly distribute bottled water, as well as power generators, to people in need. Breweries and other local businesses have also assisted with efforts to supply drinkable water.

On Friday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the state is providing “any and all resources to assist and to accelerate the response at the local level”.

State officials could not offer a timeline for exactly when the water would come back on, saying it was a question for local water providers – and many have not yet fully assessed the damage to their systems.

Gov Abbott also said more plumbers are headed to the state. Water pipes have been bursting across Texas due to the freeze, and local plumbers have struggled to meet demand.

Over 320 plumbers have renewed their licences, and the state agencies are working with plumbing companies out-of-state to secure additional help, he said.

The forecaster has also warned of dangerous travel conditions and power outages in eastern parts of the US as another winter storm system is expected to bring heavy snow, freezing rain and ice.

As the state continues to grapple with the weather crisis, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz is facing a backlash after he left Houston on Wednesday for a vacation in Mexico with his family.

Mr Cruz apologised on Thursday and returned to the US after initially planning to stay through the weekend.

How deadly has the storm been?
The recorded deaths in Texas include people who have died in traffic accidents, as well as some who suffered carbon monoxide poisoning from running cars and generators indoors to stay warm.

In Harris County, home to Houston, there were more than 300 suspected cases of carbon monoxide poisoning during the cold snap. A local doctor described it as “a mini mass casualty event” to the Houston Chronicle newspaper.

At least four people were killed following a house fire in Houston that officials said may have been started by candles.

Separately, police said two men found alongside a Houston highway were believed to have died due to the cold.

An 11-year-old boy died after temperatures outside his unheated mobile trailer home fell to below freezing. Authorities are now investigating whether Cristian Pavon, who was born in Honduras and saw snow for the first time in his life the day before his death, succumbed to hypothermia on Tuesday.

Cristian’s three-year-old stepbrother, who was asleep in the same bed as him, was not injured.

Carrol Anderson, a 75-year-old Vietnam War veteran, died in his truck after he ran out of the oxygen tanks he used to breathe and went outside to get a spare.

“He shouldn’t have had to die because he couldn’t breathe because we didn’t have power,” his wife of 30 years told the Chronicle.

His death was one of four announced by officials in the Houston region on Thursday.

Two other men died in their homes and another man was found dead in a car park.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez emphasised: “The weather is not just cold, it’s deadly.”