WASHINGTON – At an emergency response center in Houston on Friday, President Biden praised officials who had slept in stairwells as they worked around the clock to help people without electricity or clean water in due to devastating storms, low temperatures and the breakdown of basic utilities that had crippled Texas.
At a food bank, Mr Biden hugged a little girl who was volunteering, then spoke to a woman about the death of her oldest son, again tapping into the pain of others by accessing his own.
Later, during a visit to a stadium turned into a mass vaccination site that will administer gunshots to the arms of some 6,000 Texans a day, Mr Biden assured the federal government would work to provide water. clean drinking, blankets, food, fuel and shelter for those struggling to rebuild their lives in the state.
“We will be true partners to help you recover,” said Mr. Biden. “We are gone for the long haul.”
Relief from infrastructure and coronaviruses may be the official agenda in Washington, but the overwhelming nature of mourning has been the unofficial theme this week for a White House facing a pandemic that has resulted in catastrophic loss of life and now a disaster in the country. second largest state.
Not all presidents naturally take on the role of comforting the grieving, but Mr Biden, who lost his first wife and buried two children, is the rare politician who seems to draw his strength from the experience.
“He has given a lot of hope to people who know their suffering does not go unnoticed,” Sylvester Turner, Democratic Mayor of Houston, said in an interview. “He responds very quickly and his presence here means a lot to a lot of people.”
Mr Biden began the week by presiding over a solemn celebration of the pandemic’s latest milestone: more than 500,000 Americans dead.
“As we have been fighting this pandemic for so long, we must resist becoming numb with pain,” he said during a White House speech Monday night.
And when he traveled to Houston with First Lady Jill Biden, the President first used the power of his office to show his support for a community ravaged by twin crises.
“You save people’s lives,” Biden told a group of emergency medical workers at an emergency operations center. “As my mother would say, you are doing the work of God.”
In Harris County, which includes Houston, about 50% of its 4.9 million people lost power when storms hit. Nearly two weeks later, about 10,000 residents were still boiling their water, according to county officials, and more than 50,000 statewide were still on boil water advisories, according to officials from the Federal Land Management Agency. emergency room.
As soon as Mr. Biden hit the ground in Texas, he set a different tone than his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, who has more than once threatened to deny federal funding to states recovering from disasters because ‘he had toxic political relations with state officials there. .
Mr Biden, who launched a $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief program with very little Republican support, was joined by Republican elected officials who praised him for approving a declaration of major disaster for Texas, providing the flow of federal resources to some 126 counties throughout the storm-affected state. That’s about half of the counties Governor Greg Abbott, who joined Mr Biden on the trip, asked to be covered by the statement. Storm damage is expected to exceed $ 20 billion, according to the Insurance Council of Texas.
“Governor and Senator Cruz and I have called for a federal government statement that provides access to public and private assistance through FEMA,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and another trip participant. , referring to junior state senator Ted Cruz, who was in Florida speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “This is going to be important for our recovery.”
“It’s good that Senator Cornyn is here,” Harris County’s top elected representative Lina Hidalgo told reporters who asked her about Mr. Cruz’s absence. “It’s good that Governor Abbott is here. This is a very important example of unity. “
At the food bank, Dr Biden slipped cans of peaches into food wrappers for students who rely on free school meals while the president spoke to children and told them about his own family.
It was a marked difference from Mr. Trump, who in 2018 was criticized for visiting a disaster relief center in Puerto Rico, only to throw paper towels at category hurricane survivors. 5. “I was having fun,” Mr. Trump said afterwards. “They were having fun.”
Mr. Biden sounded more reassuring – and less partisan – than his predecessor.
“We’re not here today as Democrats or Republicans,” Biden said. “We are here today as Americans.”
Maria Jimenez Moya contributed reporting from Houston.