Add Mother Nature to the pile of crises on U.S. President Joe Biden’s plate.
A month into the job and focused on the coronavirus, Biden is seeing his disaster-management skills tested after winter storms plunged Texas, Oklahoma and neighbouring states into an unusual deep freeze that left millions shivering in homes that lost heat, power and, in many cases, water.
At least 69 deaths across the United States have been blamed on the blast of unseasonable weather.
The White House announced on Saturday that the president had declared a major disaster in Texas, and he has asked federal agencies to identify additional resources to address the suffering.
In a statement on Saturday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott welcomed the president’s action, calling it “an important first step,” as the second most-populous U.S. state recovers from the havoc wreaked by the recent winter weather.
But the governor said individual assistance had been approved for only 77 counties, not all of the state’s 254 counties, as he had requested.
Reuters reported that some 78,000 Texas households were still without power as of Saturday morning, but that was down from the more daunting total of millions of state residents who had been dealing with outages earlier in the week.
With the weather set to improve and temperatures expected to return to normal in the coming days, the main concern has shifted from power to water.
Many challenges at hand
Biden came into office on Jan. 20 promising to tackle a series of brewing crises, starting with the COVID-19 pandemic and its ripple effects on the economy. He tacked on systemic racism and climate change as top priorities. And now he’s contending with storms that have not only imperilled Americans but also delayed the shipment and administration of millions of doses of coronavirus vaccines.
WATCH | Severe winter storm slows vaccine rollout in parts of U.S.:
Biden said Friday that he hopes to travel to Texas next week but doesn’t want his presence and the accompanying presidential entourage to distract from the recovery.
“They’re working like the devil to take care of their folks,” he said of Texas officials. He said he’d make a decision early next week about travel.
Biden, who offered himself during the campaign as the experienced and empathetic candidate the country needed at this moment in time, is working on several fronts to address the situation — and to avoid repeating the mistakes of predecessors who got tripped up by inadequate or insensitive responses in times of disaster.
Managing disasters part of the job
Part of the job of being president is responding to the destruction left behind by earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters, or events such as deadly mass shootings or even acts of terrorism.
Some have handled such situations better than others.
Then-president George W. Bush earned praise for his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but stumbled during his administration’s halting response to the humanitarian disaster that unfolded in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast four years later.
Barack Obama, who succeeded Bush in the White House, said he should have anticipated the blowback he got for going to the golf course right after he condemned the beheading of a kidnapped American journalist by Islamist militants in 2014. Obama was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard at the time.
Donald Trump was criticized for tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd of people in Puerto Rico who had endured Hurricane Maria’s pummeling of the island in 2017. He defended tossing the towels, saying the people were “having fun.”
Bill Clinton, who famously claimed during the 1992 presidential campaign that “I feel your pain,” was a natural at connecting with disaster victims.
The public pays attention
Just this week, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas showed how quickly one bad move during a crisis can become a public relations disaster for a politician.
Cruz came under attack for travelling to Mexico while his constituents suffered without power, heat and running water. His explanation — that his daughters pushed for the getaway because they were out of school — was particularly panned. Cruz later said the trip was a mistake.
Biden has tweeted about Texas and the other affected states, while the White House has issued numerous statements aimed at demonstrating that the federal government is in command of the situation. The president is getting regular updates from his staff and already declared states of emergency in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana — adding the disaster designation announced Saturday for Texas.
Biden has spoken to governors
The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has shipped dozens of generators and supplies, including fuel, water, blankets and ready-to-eat meals, to the affected areas.
Biden has spoken to the governors of the seven states most affected by the winter weather. He tweeted a photo of himself on the phone with Abbott, the Texas governor, earlier in the week.
Tonight, I called Governor Greg Abbott to discuss the ongoing situation in Texas and identify ways we can support the state’s recovery from this storm. I made clear to the Governor that I’ll work relentlessly to get his state what they need. <a href=”https://t.co/UBwH8DMep2″>pic.twitter.com/UBwH8DMep2</a>
Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, a staunch supporter of Trump, was quick to praise Biden for swift action on a disaster declaration.
After speaking with Biden by telephone earlier this week, Stitt specifically thanked the president for “taking the time to reach out this afternoon and offer the federal government’s help for Oklahomans. We had a very productive call and I look forward to working together to find solutions as we recover from this historic storm.”
Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said Biden is “well suited” to deal with the disaster because of his decades of service in the U.S. Senate and as a former vice-president, as well as “his genuine concern for people.”
“He’s got to show empathy right off the bat,” Perry said in an interview. “It’s important for a president to go to a place that’s been battered, but be careful about the footprint. He doesn’t want to make things worse.”
Biden, should he decide to visit Texas next week, could also use the trip to press his point that climate change is real and must not go unaddressed — and that the state could do things such as winterize its power plants to be better prepared for future storms, Perry said.
But he should take care not do so in a scolding kind of way.
“We know he cares about climate change, and this is a way to convince people,” Perry said.