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President Biden, Texas officials spar over Hurricane Beryl response

High water in Buffalo Bayou after Hurricane Beryl. The view is looking from the Shepherd Drive overpass over Allen Parkway.
David Smith
High water in Buffalo Bayou after Hurricane Beryl. The view is looking from the Shepherd Drive overpass over Allen Parkway.

This story has been updated to include comment from a former top FEMA lawyer.

President Joe Biden and Texas leaders are feuding over the response to Hurricane Beryl.

On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle reported that Biden said he had to delay distributing federal emergency services to Texas because he was trying to “track down” the governor to secure the major disaster declaration request needed to release the aid.

A White House spokesman told the newspaper federal officials attempted to reach Abbott and Patrick multiple times. The president did not provide more details about his attempts to reach them.

Biden told the Chronicle he did not connect until Tuesday afternoon with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is acting governor. Gov. Greg Abbott is on an official trip to Asia.

“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 said.

But Abbott’s spokesman accused the president of lying. He said federal agencies had been working with state officials ahead of the storm and that all necessary disaster declarations were in place well in advance.

"This is a complete lie from President Biden, and frankly doesn't make any sense,” Andrew Mahaleris said. “The President and his Administration know exactly how to get in contact with the Governor and have on numerous occasions in the past, and even most recently on Friday when FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell called and spoke with him while on a trade mission.”

Patrick issued state disaster declarations for 121 counties by Saturday. Beryl made landfall near Matagorda as a Category 1 hurricane early Monday morning. After surveying the damage with local and federal officials, Patrick spoke with Biden on Tuesday and requested a federal disaster declaration. “The President granted the state’s request,” Abbott said in a press release Tuesday evening. “The State of Texas may make additional requests as damage assessments are completed.”

Ernie Abbott, a longtime disaster recovery lawyer, was general counsel to FEMA under Bill Clinton. He explained that a major disaster declaration allows the federal government to help states pay for responding to catastrophes like storms.

For this to happen, the state’s governor must make the request. Only the president can approve it.

Ernie Abbott said several things usually happen first. Federal and state officials will work together to evaluate the damage in the immediate aftermath of the event. Then, if they find enough was done to require federal help, a case can be made for a major disaster to be declared.

FEMA will evaluate the case and decide to recommend it to the president.

If the president says OK, the federal government shoulders at least 75% of the cost of services like debris removal.

Ernie Abbott said governors can make disaster declaration requests before a storm makes landfall when they know ahead of time that it is going to be particularly deadly. But local officials may want to assess the damage first.

In asking for a disaster declaration, states are agreeing to pay up to 25% of the cost and to administer the federal aid once it is doled out.

Ernie Abbott said, with the information we have now, the process appears to have been followed.

“The statute requires the governor to ask [for a major disaster declaration], and that’s what happened here, and the president granted it,” said Ernie Abbott, who is of counsel at Baker Donelson.

However, Texas officials have not always waited to ask for federal help.

Ahead of Hurricane Hanna in 2020, another Category 1 storm, as well as Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Harvey in 2018, the governor requested a major disaster declaration ahead of time, according to the Chronicle.

Biden, a Democrat, has frequently fought with Texas’ GOP leaders over policies related to abortion, immigration, LGBTQ rights and more. After Biden’s recent shaky debate performance, Patrick has criticized the president and his ability to lead.

Patrick said the president was turning Beryl into “a political issue” and, borrowing one of Biden’s favorite quips, called his complaints “a load of malarkey.”

“[Biden] is falsely accusing me that I was not reachable,” Patrick posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “He obviously did not know his own employees from FEMA were side-by-side with me for 3 days! All he had to do was call them and have them hand their phone to me. I even took a photo with them!”

At a press conference, Patrick said there was “no delay” and “total teamwork” between federal and state officials, according to the Chronicle.

“The truth is, before you can ask for a declaration you have to go meet with people in the impacted areas to see what’s needed and the level of need,” Patrick said.

Nim Kidd, who heads the state’s emergency management agency, said the federal aid would help cover debris removal and emergency protective measures, including generators.

The hurricane brought winds over 80 mph and heavy rains. Seven people in the Houston region died due to the storm, including two killed after trees fell on their homes.

In his Tuesday evening statement, the governor said the safety of Texans remained their No. 1 priority.

“Our hearts grieve for all Texans impacted by Hurricane Beryl, including our fellow Texans who tragically lost their lives or were injured,” Abbott said.

Copyright 2024 KUT 90.5

Lauren McGaughy