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© Reuters. U.S. President Biden visits Pfizer manufacturing plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan

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By Callaghan O’Hare

HOUSTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Texas on Saturday as the state struggles with the fallout from a winter storm that killed at least two dozen people and caused widespread blackouts and water shortages.

Millions of residents in the United States’ biggest oil and gas producer have had to contend with days of electricity outages, and nearly half of all Texans are still suffering from disruptions to their water service.

Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, which encompasses Houston, said on Friday authorities were reporting 10 deaths due to hypothermia.

The action by the Biden administration makes federal funding available to affected individuals, including assistance for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans.

Biden is also weighing a trip to Texas to survey the federal response to the first new crisis to develop since he took office a month ago. The White House is working closely with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican who did not initially acknowledge Biden’s November election win.

Abbott thanked the president for approving the major disaster declaration, saying in a statement that it was “an important first step.” But, he added, individual assistance had only been approved for 77 counties, not all the state’s 254 counties as he had requested.

FROM RESPONSE TO RECOVERY

With all the state’s power plants back online, millions of Texans were finally able to turn on the lights and heat their homes again. However, outages persisted and more than 78,000 homes remained without electricity as of Saturday morning.

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.

More than 1,200 public water systems have reported service disruptions, many of them leading to boil water notices, said Gary Rasp, a spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. He said 14.3 million people in 190 counties were affected as of Saturday morning.

“I would have rather gone through a hurricane than this freeze,” Jay Farrell, a plumber, told Reuters at his home in Houston.

Farrell said he has not been able to take showers and for days has been using buckets of water from his hot tub to flush the toilet. As Texas shivered in the dark during the freeze, he said the temperature in his house dropped to 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 5.5 Celsius).

In Houston, officials struck a more optimistic tone after power was restored to most residents and with mass distributions of bottled water under way.

“Things are looking up… We are headed in the direction of normalcy,” Hidalgo said in a video address on Friday. “Right now it’s about shifting from response to recovery.”

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