'We're in for the long haul': Biden visits Texas following storm, promises increased COVID relief

President Joe Biden talks with a volunteer at the Houston Food Bank, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Houston.
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WASHINGTON – About one week after Texas was ravaged by a winter storm that left millions without electricity and water for days, President Joe Biden went down to the Lone Star State to survey the damage and take on his role of consoler-in-chief.

"I wanted to visit Texas today for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, to let the people of Texas know our prayers are with you in this aftermath of this winter storm," Biden said in remarks following a stop at COVID-19 vaccine distribution in Houston. "Secondly, to let you know ... that we will be partners to help you recover and rebuild from the storms and this pandemic and economic crisis.

"We're in for the long haul," the president said.

Biden, along with first lady Jill Biden, spent the day meeting with local leaders to discuss the storm, relief efforts and recovery. Biden toured the Harris County Emergency Operations, in addition to the Houston Food Bank with the first lady. The president will also visit a COVID-19 health center where vaccines are being distributed at NRG Stadium. Biden spent much of his day with Abbott and other local officials.

More: Sen. John Cornyn wants to join Bidens on Houston trip to examine storm aftermath

At least 4.3 million Texans lost electricity at one point last week during the winter storm. Millions more lost water or were under a boil advisory. Texas is not part of the national power grid, and has its own electrical grid that covers nearly the entire state. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas operates Texas' electrical grid, and has come under fire due to the outages.

Press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that Biden wanted to visit Houston because “he likes to see the details and likes to see things in person."

"He wants to see how the public is engaging and have those conversations and that's important to him, as in terms of his governing style," Psaki told reporters on Air Force One. "It's important to him to hear directly from people on what their needs are.”

In addition to Abbott, Biden met with several elected officials during his visit to the state, including Sen. John Cornyn, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher.

After landing, Biden was greeted by Abbott, who he fist-bumped, in addition to Green and Jackson Lee. The First Lady was also handed a bouquet of flowers. Before leaving Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base, Biden also greeted other officials, such as Hidalgo and Garcia. Turner, the Houston mayor, who was wearing a black Cowboy hat, also briefly chatted with the Bidens before they left the base.

Sen. Ted Cruz is not meeting with Biden and instead gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida. Cruz came under fire after briefly flying to Cancun, Mexico, with his family last week after they lost power during the storm. Cruz flew back to Texas after his trip became public.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday there was neither an invitation nor a request for Cruz to attend the trip.

Biden's first stop after landing in Texas was to the Harris County Emergency Operations, where he got an update on the response to the winter storm. Cornyn was among the lawmakers who were present during Biden's stop there. Ahead of Biden's arrival, Cornyn praised the president for making a trip to the Lone Star State.

“The governor and Senator Cruz and I asked for a declaration from the federal government which provides access to public and private assistance through FEMA," Cornyn said. "That’s going to be important for our recovery.”

Hidalgo, Harris County Judge, welcomed the president to the center and noted that the county's emergency staff has been working hard throughout the pandemic and last week's winter storm.

“These folks have been the tip of the spear when it comes to fighting for our community," she said. "They have been sleeping in the stairwells… They were here every night last week."

"Mr. President your support means the world to us," she continued.

Biden praised the emergency staff, saying that they're doing "God's work."

“Hell of an operation here. It’s probably the best one in the country…. You’re saving peoples’ lives,” Biden said.

Following that stop, Biden and the first lady were given a tour of the Houston Food Bank by Brian Greene, CEO of Houston Food Bank. Prior to the president arriving at the food bank, Dr. Jill Biden and Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott were helping pack meals for seniors through the food bank’s Senior Box program.

During the tour, Biden talked to volunteers, including a young boy and his sister. Biden told the girl that his sister is his best friend.

"She's smarter than I am. She's better than I am," Biden told the girl of his sister."

Biden described the food bank as "incredible" and said: "It's absolutely amazing, and we could do so much more."

Biden's Deputy National Security Adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall told reporters Friday that as of Thursday afternoon, more than $9 million in assistance has been awarded to Texas.

"Although we're encouraged by the progress that has been made, and we're seeing the numbers come down dramatically right now in terms of who needs to still go and boil water in Texas, we will continue to look for ways to help through this next phase of recovery," she said during a brief press briefing on Air Force One.

Biden has approved a major disaster declaration for over 100 counties in the state. Psaki said that the president’s trip comes as Texas is entering the recovery stage. However, Abbott has asked Biden to issue a major disaster declaration for all 254 counties.

"When a crisis hits our states like the one to hit Texas, it's not a Republican or Democrat that's hurting. It's our fellow Americans are hurting," Biden said during remarks Friday evening. "And it's our job to help everyone in need. Look out for one another leave nobody behind."

More: Winter storm blackouts plagued Texas in 2011, too. Recommendations made afterward went unenforced.

Contributing: Asher Price, Austin American-Statesman

Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden in Houston: President visits Texas after winter storm