Nation & World: Biden declares disaster in Texas; aid flows in

photo by: Associated Press

President Joe Biden speaks to member of the media after exiting Air Force One, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Add Mother Nature to the pile of crises on President Joe Biden’s plate.

A month into the job and focused on the coronavirus, Biden is seeing his disaster management skills tested after winter storms plunged Texas, Oklahoma and neighboring states into an unusual deep freeze that left millions shivering in homes that lost heat and power, and in many homes, water.

At least 69 deaths across the U.S. have been blamed on the blast of unseasonable weather.

The White House announced on Saturday that the president had declared a major disaster in Texas, and he has asked federal agencies to identify additional resources to address the suffering.

Biden came into office Jan. 20 promising to tackle a series of brewing crises, starting with the coronavirus pandemic and its ripple effects on the economy. He tacked on systemic racism and climate change as top priorities. And now he’s contending with storms that have not only imperiled Americans but also delayed the shipment and administration of millions of doses of coronavirus vaccines.

Biden said Friday that he hopes to travel to Texas next week but doesn’t want his presence and the accompanying presidential entourage to distract from the recovery.

“They’re working like the devil to take care of their folks,” Biden said of Texas officials. He said he’d make a decision early next week about travel.

Biden, who offered himself during the campaign as the experienced and empathetic candidate the nation needed at this moment in time, is working on several fronts to address the situation — and to avoid repeating the mistakes of predecessors who got tripped up by inadequate or insensitive responses in times of disaster.

Part of the job of being president is responding to the destruction left behind by earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters, or events like deadly mass shootings, or even acts of terrorism.

Some have handled such situations better than others.

George W. Bush earned praise for his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but stumbled during his administration’s halting response to the humanitarian disaster that unfolded in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast four years later.

Barack Obama said he should have anticipated the blowback he got for going to the golf course right after he condemned the beheading of a kidnapped American journalist by Islamist militants in 2014. Obama was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard at the time.

Donald Trump was criticized for tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd of people in Puerto Rico who had endured Hurricane Maria’s pummeling of the island in 2017. He defended tossing the towels, saying the people were “having fun.”

Bill Clinton, who famously claimed during the 1992 presidential campaign that “I feel your pain,” was a natural at connecting with disaster victims.

Just this week, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas showed how quickly one bad move during a crisis can become a public relations disaster for a politician.

Cruz came under attack for traveling to Mexico while his constituents suffered without power, heat and running water. His explanation — that his daughters pushed for the getaway because they were out of school — was particularly panned. Cruz later said the trip was a mistake.

Biden has tweeted about Texas and the other affected states, while the White House has issued numerous statements aimed at demonstrating that the federal government is in command of the situation. The president is getting regular updates from his staff and already declared states of emergency in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana — adding the disaster designation announced Saturday for Texas.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has shipped dozens of generators and supplies, including fuel, water, blankets and ready-to-eat meals, to the affected areas.

Biden has spoken to the governors of the seven states most affected by the winter weather. He tweeted a photo of himself on the phone with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas.

Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, a staunch supporter of Trump’s, was quick to praise Biden for swift action on a disaster declaration.

After speaking with Biden by telephone earlier this week, Stitt specifically thanked the president for “taking the time to reach out this afternoon and offer the federal government’s help for Oklahomans. We had a very productive call and I look forward to working together to find solutions as we recover from this historic storm.”

Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said Biden is “well-suited” to deal with the disaster because of his decades of service in the U.S. Senate and as a former vice president and because of “his genuine concern for people.”

“He’s got to show empathy right off the bat,” Perry said in an interview. “It’s important for a president to go to a place that’s been battered, but be careful about the footprint. He doesn’t want to make things worse.”

Biden, should he decide to visit Texas next week, could also use the trip to press his point that climate change is real and must not go unaddressed, and that the state could do things like winterize its power plants to be better prepared for future storms, Perry said.

But he should take care to not do so in a scolding kind of way.

“We know he cares about climate change, and this is a way to convince people,” Perry said.



Experts: Even if you’re vaccinated, don’t shed your mask yet

You’re fully vaccinated against the coronavirus — now what? Don’t expect to shed your mask and get back to normal activities right away.

That’s going to be a disappointment, if not a shock, to many people.

In Miami, 81-year-old Noemi Caraballo got her second dose on Tuesday and is looking forward to seeing friends, resuming fitness classes and running errands after nearly a year of being extremely cautious, even ordering groceries online.

“Her line is, ‘I’m tired of talking to the cats and the parrots,'” said her daughter Susan Caraballo. “She wants to do things and talk to people.”

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t yet changed its guidelines: At least for now, people should follow the same rules as everybody else about wearing a mask, keeping a 6-foot distance and avoiding crowds — even after they’ve gotten their second vaccine dose.

Vaccines in use so far require two doses, and experts say especially don’t let your guard down after the first dose.

“You’re asking a very logical question,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, responded when a 91-year-old California woman recently asked if she and her vaccinated friends could resume their mah-jongg games.

In that webcast exchange, Fauci only could point to the CDC’s recommendations, which so far are mum about exceptions for vaccinated people getting together. “Hang on,” he told the woman, saying he expected updates to the guidelines as more people get the coveted shots.

What experts also need to learn: The vaccines are highly effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, especially severe illness and death — but no one yet knows how well they block spread of the coronavirus.

It’s great if the vaccine means someone who otherwise would have been hospitalized instead just has the sniffles, or even no symptoms. But “the looming question,” Fauci said during a White House coronavirus response briefing last week, is whether a person infected despite vaccination can still, unwittingly, infect someone else.

Studies are underway to find out, and hints are starting to emerge. Fauci pointed to recent research from Spain showing the more coronavirus an infected person harbors — what’s called the viral load — the more infectious they are. That’s not surprising, as it’s true with other illnesses.

Some preliminary findings from Israel have suggested people infected after the first vaccine dose, when they’re only partially protected, had smaller viral loads than unvaccinated people who got infected. That’s encouraging if the findings hold up. Israel has vaccinated a large fraction of its population and scientists worldwide are watching how the outbreak responds as those inoculations increase.

Also critical is tracking whether the vaccines protect against new, mutated versions of the virus that are spreading rapidly in some countries, added Dr. Walter Orenstein, an infectious disease expert at Emory University. He’s been vaccinated and is scrupulously following the CDC guidelines.

There are practical reasons. “It’s hard to tell who got vaccinated and who didn’t if you’re just walking around the grocery store,” noted University of Pennsylvania immunologist E. John Wherry.

And experts like Wherry get asked, repeatedly: Yes, there are rules for being in public, but what’s safe for Grandma to do at home, with family or close friends, after she’s vaccinated?

Not everyone’s immune system is boosted equally from vaccines — so someone with cancer or the frail elderly may not get as much protection as a robust 70-something.

But most people should feel “more confident about going shopping, for example, or going to see your grandkids, or giving your daughter a hug,” Wherry said.

That’s because the chances of a fully vaccinated person getting seriously ill, while not zero, are low.

“Friends coming over for dinner, we should still try to follow the guidelines,” Wherry added. “You never know who is compromised, where the vaccine may not work as well.”

What if the fully vaccinated are exposed to someone who’s infected? The CDC did recently ease those rules: No quarantine as long as the vaccinated person shows no symptoms and it’s been at least two weeks but not longer than three months since their second dose.

Getting on an airplane? Vaccinated or not, the CDC still urges essential travel only.

International travel is an even tougher prospect. Expect countries that already have different quarantine and test requirements to come up with varying post-vaccination guidelines — especially since multiple types of vaccines, some better proven than others, are used around the world. There’s also the concern about carrying those worrisome mutations from one country to another.

Stay tuned for updates to the advice as more people get vaccinated. Meanwhile, don’t underestimate how important it is for the vaccinated to feel less anxiety as they run errands or go to work while still following the public health measures, said Dr. Luciana Borio, a former Food and Drug Administration scientist.

Even with a trip to the grocery store, “there was always this anxiety about, ‘Was that the contact that’s going to make me infected?'” Borio said. “That is a very powerful change in one’s living situation.”



BRIEFLY


Senator seeking investigation of natural gas price hikes

Washington (ap) — A Democratic senator is calling for federal investigations into possible price gouging of natural gas in the Midwest and other regions following severe winter storms that plunged Texas and other states into a deep freeze that caused power outages in millions of homes and businesses.

Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith says natural gas spot prices spiked as high as 100 times typical levels, forcing utilities and other natural gas users to incur exorbitant costs, many of which were passed on to customers.

In a letter sent Saturday to federal regulators, Smith said the price spikes will not just harm consumers, but could “threaten the financial stability of some utilities that do not have sufficient cash reserves to cover their short-term costs in this extraordinary event.” The letter was sent to the Energy Department, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Associated Press.


Moscow court rejects appeal from Navalny

Moscow (ap) — A Moscow court on Saturday rejected Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s appeal of his prison sentence, even as the country faced an order from a top European rights court to free the Kremlin’s most prominent foe.

A few hours later, a judge in a separate case ordered Navalny to pay a fine for defaming a World War II veteran.

During the first court hearing, Navalny urged Russians to stand up to the Kremlin in a fiery speech mixing references to the Bible and “Harry Potter.”

Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption crusader and President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic, was arrested on Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.


Debris falls on Denver suburbs as plane makes emergency landing

Broomfield, Colo. (ap) — Debris from a United Airlines plane fell onto Denver suburbs during an emergency landing Saturday after one of its engines suffered a catastrophic failure and rained pieces of the engine casing on a neighborhood where it narrowly missed a home.

The plane landed safely, and nobody aboard or on the ground was reported hurt, authorities said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that the Boeing 777-200 returned to the Denver International Airport after experiencing a right-engine failure shortly after takeoff. Flight 328 was flying from Denver to Honolulu when the incident occurred, the agency said.

United said in a separate statement that there were 231 passengers and 10 crew on board. All passengers were to be rebooked on a new flight to Hawaii, the airline said.

The Broomfield Police Department posted photos on Twitter showing large, circular pieces of debris leaning against a house in the suburb about 25 miles north of Denver. Police are asking that anyone injured come forward.

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