WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Joe Biden will exercise his empathy skills Friday during a Texas visit with a dual mission: surveying damage caused by severe winter weather and encouraging people to get their coronavirus shots.
Biden and his wife, Jill, were traveling to Houston for the president's first trip to a major disaster site since he took office a little over a month ago.
Severe winter weather across the South over Valentine's Day weekend battered multiple states, with Texas bearing the brunt of unseasonably frigid conditions that caused widespread power outages and frozen pipes that burst and flooded homes. Millions of residents lost heat and running water.
At least 40 people in Texas died as a result of the storm and, although the weather has returned to more normal temperatures, more than 1 million residents were still under orders to boil water before drinking it.
Biden is expected to visit a food bank and meet with local leaders to discuss the storm, relief efforts and progress toward recovery. He is to be accompanied by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
While in Houston, the Democratic president also planned to visit a mass coronavirus vaccination center run by the federal government. Biden on Thursday commemorated the 50 millionth COVID-19 vaccination since he took office, halfway toward his goal of 100 million shots by his 100th day in office. That celebration followed a moment of silence to mark the passage earlier this week of 500,000 U.S. deaths blamed on the disease.
The post-storm debate in Texas has centered on the state maintaining its own electrical grid and lack of storm preparation, including weatherization of key infrastructure. Some state officials initially blamed the blackouts on renewable energy even though Texas is a heavy user of fossil fuels like oil and gas.
The White House said Biden's purpose in visiting would be to support, not scold.
“The president doesn't view the crisis and the millions of people who've been impacted by it as a Democratic or Republican issue,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. “He views it as an issue where he's eager to get relief, to tap into all the resources in the federal government, to make sure the people of Texas know we're thinking about them, we're fighting for them and we're going to continue working on this as they're recovering.”
Psaki said policy discussions about better weatherization and preparation could come later, "but right now, we're focused on getting relief to the people of the state."
Biden has declared a major disaster in Texas and asked federal agencies to identify additional resources to aid the recovery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent emergency generators, bottled water, ready-to-eat meals and blankets.
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said in an interview that he didn't know what more the federal government could do to help because the failures were at the state level. But Henry, a Republican who is the highest county official in the suburban Houston county, said that if Biden “thinks it's important to visit, then come on down.”
Biden wanted to make the trip last week, but said at the time that he held back because he didn't want his presence and entourage to detract from the recovery effort.
Biden, whose life has been marked by personal tragedy, is known for his ability to empathize with others and their suffering. His first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car collision in 1972. His son, Beau Biden, died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.
No Texas lawmakers were expected to hitch a ride home aboard Air Force One due to “limitations on space” on the plane, Psaki said.
It was unclear whether Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz would join Biden in the state. Members of Congress often tag along when a president visits their state.
The state's other senator, Republican John Cornyn, planned to join Biden, a spokesman said.
Cruz, an ally of former President Donald Trump and one of a handful of GOP lawmakers who had objected to Congress certifying Biden's victory, was scheduled to address the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, on Friday morning, a spokesman said.
Cruz was recently criticized for taking his family to Cancun, Mexico, while millions of Texans shivered in their unheated homes during the disaster. Cruz later said the trip was a mistake. Cornyn's plans were unclear.
Coincidentally, Houston also was the destination for Trump's first presidential visit to a disaster area in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding that August.
Trump, who is not known for displays of empathy, did not meet with storm victims on the visit. He returned four days later and urged people who had relocated to a shelter to “have a good time.”