The request for federal aid after Beryl opens rift between White House and Texas

Jul 10, 2024, 8:25 PM

A Houston police officer carries a case of water to a car outside of Sunnyside Health and Multi-Ser...

A Houston police officer carries a case of water to a car outside of Sunnyside Health and Multi-Service Center during a distribution of water and ice on Wednesday, July 10, 2024, after Hurricane Beryl hit the Houston area on Monday. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle via AP)

(Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle via AP)

HOUSTON (AP) — The damage left by Hurricane Beryl in Texas and requests for federal help has opened a rift between the White House and the state’s GOP leaders following the storm that pummeled the coast and knocked out power to millions of residents this week around Houston.

President Joe Biden said he tried tracking down Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — who has been in Asia on a trade mission since last week — to get the state to formally request a major disaster declaration that unlocks federal aid. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Biden also said he tried reaching Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has served as acting governor since Beryl made landfall Monday, before they eventually connected the next day.

Both Texas leaders have sharply pushed back on Biden’s version of events in the middle of a hurricane recovery that has left some coastal residents facing the possibility of days or weeks without electricity.

“I’ve been trying to track down the governor to see — I don’t have any authority to do that without a specific request from the governor,” Biden told the newspaper on Tuesday.

Abbott, in an interview from Japan on Wednesday with Austin television station KTBC, said Biden has reached him him multiple times on the same number following previous disasters in Texas but that the president this time never called that phone during Beryl.

“I know for an absolute 100% certainty, the only person to drop the ball is Joe Biden by making up some bizarre lie,” Abbott told the station. “And why he would do that? I have no idea.”

Patrick said he spoke with Biden on the phone on Tuesday and that the president granted Texas’ request for a disaster declaration. Patrick has said the state needed to first determine its needs before making a formal ask. Texas has previously requested federal help before hurricanes have made landfall, including before Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017.

Rafael Lemaitre, FEMA’s former national director of public affairs, told the newspaper that major disaster declarations do not need to wait for a thorough on-the-ground assessment. Governors are the lead requesters but can change their request as more information becomes available, Lemaitre said.

FEMA typically positions responders and aid before a hurricane makes landfall, said Beverly Cigler, a public policy professor at Penn State who specializes in intergovernmental relations and emergency management.

Once the disaster hits, an initial damage assessment is usually completed. If it reaches the threshold for an emergency declaration, the governor sends that assessment to the White House for review, she said.

“Everything is done well ahead of time,” Cigler said. “But a president has to wait to have a disaster request from the state to really get aid going in a big way.”

More than 1.4 million customers and business remained without power Wednesday evening in the Houston area, according to Poweroutage.us.

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The request for federal aid after Beryl opens rift between White House and Texas