WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Texas, which will expedite federal funding for a state wracked with widespread power outages following a rare arctic blast.
Separately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved an emergency fuel waiver for the state to prevent gasoline shortages, following blackouts this week that cut power for millions.
The major disaster declaration provides a range of federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure, including funds for both emergency and permanent work, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“This is great news for the people of Dallas after a horrible week,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, a Democrat, tweeted. “The damage caused by this storm is extensive, and the disaster declaration will help our city recover.”
The state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, thanked Biden in a statement for “partially” approving his request for major federal disaster aid state-wide. He noted that only 77 of the 254 counties in Texas had been included in the designation, although FEMA’s announcement said more could be added as damage assessments roll in.
A previous White House emergency declaration made Feb. 14 provided public assistance for all counties.
“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,” Abbott said.
The normally balmy state is still recovering from snow and ice storms that shut down power plants and gas pipelines, cutting power for millions and leaving millions more without drinkable water. Outages deprived utilities of the ability to keep pumping, which allowed pressure to drop to levels at which bacteria could proliferate.
About 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. “My family, my dog, my eight chickens are without water at my house. We are suffering through the same thing you are.”
Damage and economic losses from the winter storms are expected to reach $50 billion, AccuWeather Inc. said.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s grid, said it had exited emergency conditions Friday, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton launched a probe into the power failures that paralyzed the second-largest U.S. state for the better part of a week.
The federal disaster assistance approved by Biden can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster. Federal funding is also available for cost-sharing with state and local governments for emergency protective measures and hazard mitigation measures.
“A Major Disaster Declaration will allow for more federal dollars and critical resources to flow into our state,” Texas Republican lawmakers earlier wrote in a letter to Biden asking him to approve the declaration.
The funding comes on top of previously provided aid from FEMA that has included mobile generators the size of trucks, thousands of liters of water, and tens of thousands of blankets to shivering Texans suffering through the largest forced blackout in U.S. history.
So far Biden has mostly received praise for his handling of the crisis, the first natural disaster he has handled in his month-old presidency.
“To me it appears FEMA is doing everything they should be doing to support the state,” Daniel Kaniewski, who served as deputy administrator at FEMA under former President Donald Trump, said in a phone interview.
The EPA fuel waiver, effective immediately, allows the state to temporarily forgo some some environmental requirements. The EPA said it also issued a temporary waiver for requirements of state emissions for diesel and El Paso oxygenate levels through March 5.