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Gov. Greg Abbott News Briefing On Getting Texas Back To Normal After Winter Storms

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Governor Greg Abbott said Friday, Feb. 19, he and other Texas leaders are focused on four priorities as the state begins to thaw out after winter storms with record-low temperatures and some 4 million Texans losing power.

Video Transcript

GREG ABBOTT: I want to start by thanking everybody who's been working around the clock to restore power, and to restore water, and to ensure that we continue to meet both the food and the fuel demands of Texans across the state. I expressly want to thank the linemen, the plumbers who are out there restoring power and water. I want to thank the first responders who are working to keep Texans safe.

I want to say, thanks, to the truckers, the farmers, the ranchers, the grocery store workers, and refinery workers who are ensuring that Texans have the food and the food supplies they need right now. Because of their tireless efforts, we continue to make tremendous strides to overcome the challenges over the past week. We are working nonstop with local and federal partners. My staff and I have been in communication with local leaders as well as emergency officials throughout the state. And we will continue to work closely with them. We're also working with the Biden administration and federal officials.

I talked to the president last night, and he called to let me know that he was going to go ahead and approve the major disaster declaration that Texas would be submitting. Texas submitted that disaster declaration last night. We're still awaiting word about confirmation of what President Biden told us last night. What this approval will do is it will give Texans the ability to apply for individual assistance from FEMA, which will then provide them with funding to help fix damages to their homes that are not covered by private insurance.

And once it's formally granted, the Texas Division of Emergency Management will work with local officials to help residents apply for these FEMA funds. During our conversation, the president brought up several other related topics that would fall under the umbrella of the disaster declaration, such as support from the USDA, SBA loans, as well as other relief. Right now, we have four immediate priorities that we're focused on. First is ensuring that we complete the process of restoring power to Texas homes.

Initially, I will tell you that there are no longer any residential power outages due to the lack of power generation. However, there are still about 165,000 Texas households that remain without power. These are the result of either downed lines or the need for the power company to manually reconnect the residents to the power system. For those still without power, we want them to know that local providers are working around the clock to restore electricity.

I have been following this online, and my observation shows two things, and that is most of the people who still remain without power were in the swath of where the storm covered the state across the central part of Texas-- whether it be from West Texas to East Texas-- and that secondly, it seems like about 10 to 20,000 restorations take place each hour. So I know that the local power companies are working swiftly. The second focal point today is restoring water for Texans.

Today, I have issued waivers to cut red tape to accelerate this process. Our actions today include the following things-- to help localities get clean water back in people's homes, TCEQ, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, as of 5:00 PM today is standing up a phone bank for local water utilities who are unable to get water testing at their contracted labs. This phone bank will connect local facilities with another lab that can test their water quickly. TCEQ has partnered with the EPA to stand up three mobile water-testing labs.

Also, we are partnering with local river authorities to use their water labs to assist locals with bacteria sampling. And we have partnered with the state of Arkansas to use their labs. And we are also coordinating with larger local labs that have testing availability to help some smaller municipalities. Now, related to water, restoring water to Texans also means helping Texans deal with what may be their largest challenge in the next week, and that is busted water pipes.

We cannot emphasize this enough about homeowners and renters being prepared to deal with the consequences of busted water pipes. The major disaster declaration, when approved by the Biden administration, will assist this process. But as I said before, you must first look to your insurance company that covers your property. Along those lines, I urge everybody, whether you're a homeowner or a renter-- if you have insurance, be sure you're on the phone today contacting your insurance provider to make sure that they are working with you to assist you in this process of dealing with busted water pipes.

If, however, you're not covered by insurance, we're working both with FEMA under the major disaster declaration to make sure you get funds access to you as quickly as possible. But also, in talking to some of the local leaders last night, I know that local leaders are working locally to work on advance funding of some of these operations. Also importantly, I had a call today with the Texas Board of Plumbing Examiners to discuss additional steps that the state can take to provide assistance to Texans who are dealing with broken water pipes.

We know that there will be great demand for plumbers today, tomorrow, this weekend, and the coming days. We want to make sure that we do everything we possibly can to help you gain access to the plumbers that you need to solve your plumbing and leakage problems. Along those lines, we also took action today. As of noon today, over 320 plumbers have renewed their license. The plumbing board is coordinating with multiple out-of-state plumbing companies to send additional plumbers to Texas.

The third thing we're focused on is ensuring that Texans have the food and water supplies they need. We've dealt with similar challenges like this through hurricane after hurricane, so it's something that we are accustomed to doing through the ordinary emergency response. I, along with my staff, have been in contact with leaders at every level of the supply chain, from agricultural producers, to truck drivers, to retail grocery stores.

We've already suspended some regulations related to commercial vehicles to help expedite the process of moving food and supplies. This will speed the delivery of food and other resources to communities across the state. Along those lines, I'm taking additional steps to open new fuel supply lines to ensure that our truckers, ag producers, emergency responders, and anyone else that runs on diesel will be able to get food to our stores and supplies to Texans in need.

So today, I'm allowing the use of off-road diesel on Texas roads. I'm also working with comptroller Glenn Hager, and we have requested a fuel waiver from the EPA to allow for the use of all forms of diesel on Texas roads to keep our truckers moving. These efforts, combined with the fact that roads are clearing up by the minute, means that our grocery stores and other retail stores will have stocked shelves for Texas families more quickly. In addition, today I requested a USDA disaster declaration for Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy counties.

This would make available federal assistance, such as emergency loans, to agricultural producers who have suffered losses in these counties. The reason why I only mention those counties, those are the only counties that have provided information to the Texas Division of Emergency Management that would allow them to qualify. I would not be surprised at all to see more counties make requests that meet the qualifications, and then at that time, they will be added to that list.

Along those lines, I have already worked directly with the Texas Farm Bureau, Texas cattle feeders, Texas cattle raisers, Texas Poultry Association, Texas Pork Association, Texas Produce Association, Texas Dairymen, Tyson Foods, and grocery providers to ensure that they have all of their needs met. In addition to that, one thing that I know is there are many Texans asking how they can help out. Our fellow Texans are very supportive of each other, and they want to reach out and be able to help you at this time of need.

And I encourage those Texans who want to help out to go to one of two websites-- go to www.FeedingTexas.org. that's www. F-E-E-D-I-N-G-T-E-X-A-S .org. Or go to www.RedCross.org. That's www. R-E-D-C-R-O-S-S .org. And work with them to provide the resources that you want to provide to help support the food or other supply needs of our fellow Texans.

The fourth thing that we're focused on right now is helping our refineries get back up and running to provide Texans with the fuel they need. Frozen temperatures significantly impacted our refineries, but we are working to help them get back online to provide the fuel that Texans depend upon. We've already issued a number of waivers to expedite this process. And then earlier today, I spoke with refineries to get their input and their suggestions so that we would be able to provide them whatever type of assistance they need to get their operations back up and running again as quickly as possible.

So let me just make this clear-- we know for our fellow Texans, this past week has been an enormous challenge-- maybe unlike any challenge that you've ever dealt with before. And it's been far too burdensome for the lives of all those affected. We're working around the clock, and we will continue to work around the clock to address and to meet your needs and challenges, and help you overcome them, and get them put behind you. To help Texans, other state agencies are working around the clock to restore power and water, and to ensure that you have the food and supplies that you need.

I want to reassure you that we are using every single tool at our disposal to make sure that your needs are going to be met. The truth is what we always know-- and that is for decades, more than a century, Texans have faced enormous challenges, and we've always overcome those challenges in the past, and we'll do so again this time. I ask all Texans to continue to collaborate with each other as we work our way through this process, and also make sure that you continue to take steps to prioritize your own personal safety, and take measures and precautions to stay safe and stay warm. And just know that working together, we're going to get through this. I'm going to ask Chief Nim Kidd to add additional information that will be very important.

NIM KIDD: Thank you, governor. Since we met yesterday, we've delivered and transported about 1.7 million bottles of water. We used our Texas military department C-130s last night and Department of Defense C-17s to fly water into Corpus and Galveston. Today, we will continue to deliver water. You will see Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Abilene shipments by air today. And, folks, the reason we're using air is because the roads are still wet, the roads are still icy.

And the place where water is right now is backed up with trucks waiting to be loaded so they can get on the road to make deliveries. We will continue to deliver water by bottles for as long as it takes. We'll also continue to support the local efforts of repairing homes and infrastructure systems at the local level. Now, we don't own any of those. We don't own the infrastructure that goes to water, and we certainly don't own the homes. But we're doing everything we can to expedite repairs in that process to make that come back faster.

We have 396 warming centers open across the state today. That's an increase of 65 since yesterday. We continue to work with our hospital systems-- we've asked for the FEMA ambulance contract to deliver additional ambulances into the state to be able to support transfer of patients between facilities, mostly supporting dialysis missions. We continue to work to provide drinking and bottled water to hospitals-- and a special thanks to several of the water authorities and river authorities out there that are using their own assets to be able to deliver bulk water to hospitals.

We continue to work with the Department of State health services to bring on oxygen so that we can deliver oxygen to hospitals and to homes. And, governor, we haven't talked about this in a while, but we still have over 14,000 contract personnel in hospitals today supporting the COVID response. We'll continue that mission. I've had many, many calls with our local officials-- this morning, city managers from San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth to work on local problems that we can help them solve, whether it's repairs and homes or repairs to their infrastructure.

We had a call with our federal congressional delegation today-- lasted about 45 minutes, working through the challenges for them to help us at the federal level. We continue to talk to insurance companies-- the Department of Insurance, conversations with the Plumbing Board, as you mentioned. And later today, governor, we want to roll out a survey tool so that our citizens can tell us the amount of damage to their homes.

In many cases, they can't report that accurately right now, because, as in my house, the water just barely came on last night. We're still surveying damages. We want to make sure that people have the tool to report to us what that damage assessment is so we can share it quickly.

GREG ABBOTT: Right. Thank you. And now the executive director for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Toby Baker.

TOBY BAKER: Thank you, governor. A quick update on where we are with water across the state-- due to lack of power, and frozen, and broken pipes, out of approximately 7,000 local public water systems, over 1,000 systems are currently impacted serving over 14 million Texans. I can assure you that your local utilities are working tirelessly to provide you safe drinking water. The state of Texas is also working tirelessly around the clock to assist your local utilities in those efforts. And we won't stop until the task is complete.

If you are a public water system, I'd like to expand a little bit on what the governor talked about earlier with the phone bank. If you are a public water system and the lab that you're contracted with is inundated or is closed due to the weather or to COVID, please go to our website-- it's tceq.texas.gov, and you will find information about the phone bank mentioned by Governor Abbott, where we will help connect you with a lab to do the bacteria sampling required to lift your boil water notice. If you're an individual who has questions about your local water supply, you need to contact your local utility provider, not the state of Texas, because that system is maintained and operated by that local provider.

With that, governor, that's all I have at this time.

GREG ABBOTT: Very good. We'll take a few questions.

- [INAUDIBLE]

GREG ABBOTT: Sure. So the way ERCOT works-- obviously, it's a complex entity that is a private entity that's in charge of managing power across the state. And we have to rely upon these experts to advise us what must be done. And I want to let you know what these experts told us-- they said five days before the winter storm hit, ERCOT assured that, quote, "we are ready for the cold temperatures coming our way."

They also said that ERCOT had issued a notice to power plants to ensure that they were winterized properly. And ERCOT's annual winter assessment, which was designed to ensure the state is prepared, that assessment assured the public of Texas that there would be enough power to meet peak demand this winter. Now, what happened is ERCOT fell short on all three of these promises they made, which is exactly why I have ordered the state legislature to investigate exactly why ERCOT fell short here, and to make sure this never happens again.

Listen, we know that you folks at home have faced struggles by going without power. We want to make sure that whatever happened and ERCOT falling short never happens again, even if it means the state stepping up, providing funds to ensure that all of the machinery that froze up and was unable to generate the power you need, that may require funding. The state of Texas should step up and provide that funding.

- Is there any timeline on-- we're talking about water and water restoration. can you give any idea for Texans at home how long they would be without water? A lot of people from Austin, obviously are under a boil notice. And at the same rate, don't even have water to boil.

GREG ABBOTT: Sure. So I will answer that in part, and then I will have Toby Baker answer in part. First, to put it in context, and that is, we were asked previously what the timeline looked like with regard to restoring power. And our answer then was, as quickly as possible. And we did everything possible to get that power restored, and it happened quickly considering the circumstances we were in.

The same answer applies here. We want that water supply available immediately. And we know what it's like for people to be without their water. And we know that it's intolerable. So we're doing two things to help them immediately. One is we have brought in all of these additional resources to make sure that the turnaround would be quicker. Part of the challenge with regard to the timing of it is really going to be up to the local level, because water supply is under the total control of the local level.

You mentioned the city of Austin-- it's the city of Austin, not the state of Texas that runs the city of Austin water supply-- the same would be true in Houston or wherever in the state of Texas. And so part of that will be up to the local level. That said, the state is providing any and all resources to assist and to accelerate the response at the local level. I'll let Toby respond further.

TOBY BAKER: Yes, thank you, governor. And, governor, that's exactly right. It's really a question for the local water providers as to the damage that they sustained and their plan to get out of that. Now, where we're stepping in, we will help with engineering, with technical questions if that is requested of us. We will engage on that level and help them. We have regions all across the state of Texas where we can engage at the local level.

We're also helping with star requests, things that need to come up to the Department of Emergency Management. And we're also moving ahead with emergency authorizations as needed that need to come through the agency. But that specific question about when the water will come back on is really a question for the folks who operate that system.

- Governor Abbott, earlier this week you criticized wind and solar energy [INAUDIBLE] is that something that the state legislature should be [INAUDIBLE]?

GREG ABBOTT: It is something the state legislature will consider. So as it concerns the generation of power in the state, that is an issue that the Texas legislature will evaluate during the course of the session. They will do that across the board anyway, but I'm asking them to put a specific focus on evaluating all sources of energy so that we can ensure that we have adequate energy power in the coldest of winters, but also in the hottest of summers, so that Texans struggling at home will never have to go through that challenge again.

- Governor, is there anything you guys can do in addition to asking out of state labs and [INAUDIBLE] speed up the bacteria testing to life boil water demands for millions of Texans?

GREG ABBOTT: So, again, I'm going to have Toby answer. But I do want to say one thing-- and that is it's important for Texans at home who want access to water to get that water turned back on as quickly as possible. There is another issue, and that is we want to make sure that when they turn that water on, it's going to be safe for them to be able to drink. So we will take every step necessary, as fast as possible, to get that water back on, but also ensure that when they turn it on, it will be safe to use. But Toby will know more detail in response to your question.

TOBY BAKER: Yes. Thank you, governor. So we did a deep dive last night up all night long looking at regulations-- it's really more of just a paperwork, adds time to the process. We've identified those, we sent those to the governor's office, and that's going to be part of a rule suspension package that the governor's office is moving forward. But as far as providing safe and clean water and the bacteria sampling itself, it takes up to 24 hours for that sample and for that testing to happen.

But the problem is you can't perform that test until the integrity of the system is brought back online. So if you have a system that has many broken pipes in it and is leaking and allowing foreign sources into that system, that makes the process go longer, because you can't actually do that sampling until the system is safe and secure.

GREG ABBOTT: So we've taken action to waive and accelerate every regulatory requirement other than to make sure that it's safe. And we're going to do everything we can to make sure that everybody's water is safe to use.

- Governor, we're interested in hearing a little but about the fuel being imported into the state at this point. Not just for truckers but for average Texans who are trying to fill up their tanks so they can continue [INAUDIBLE].

GREG ABBOTT: Sure. Let me tell Texans something about fuel supplies. One reason why there has been a shortage of fuel at some local gas stations is because the trucks that deliver that fuel haven't been able to get to those gas stations because the roads have been frozen and been dangerous for those trucks to drive on. As we speak, those roads are thawing, and those trucks are going to those stations, and making sure that they're going to be able to refill the gas tanks at the local stations.

In addition to that, one thing that's taking place today is that the refineries are being powered back up to get going again to refine the fuel that's going to be needed where they can replenish the supplies that will be used up over the course of the next week. And so we believe that we're going to be able to get all the fuel online very swiftly.

- Governor, you called for, obviously, providing funding to winterize power suppliers and plants generated across the state. Do you think that there are issues, though, with the pricing models for energy, the focus on scarcity pricing and price caps to de-incentivize these people to actually winterize their stuff?

GREG ABBOTT: So you ask a very important question about pricing models and pricing strategies as it concerns energy and power. That is an extremely important issue that I want to make sure that the legislature considers as they evaluate the entire ERCOT process-- about what pricing decisions were made. Were they right? Were they wrong? Does that pricing system need to be altered?

For the people at home, just know what we're talking about-- and that is we want to make sure that we have ongoing, adequate supplies of power at a price that makes sense. And that pricing model may have affected the ability to generate power-- that's something we need to get to the bottom of.

- Last question.

- [INAUDIBLE]

GREG ABBOTT: So homeless Texans are a great concern for us right now, and especially this harsh, cold temperature. And so we're working with local officials-- and this is something also that's provided funding through the FEMA program as well as other strategies, to make sure that we will be able to assist local governments in their response to address the needs of the homeless. It is a priority.

We care about all humans out there, especially those who are exposed to the harshest conditions. And we want to get them in a place where they can be alleviated from the situation that they are in.