Abbott issues disaster declaration, seeks fed help
Gov. Greg Abbot has issued a disaster declaration for Texas counties affected by the early February ice storm and is seeking a federal declaration as well for areas in Southeast Texas affected by rare January tornadoes. The ice storm caused considerable damage to property and power outages in the affected areas. The declaration for ice-storm damaged counties includes Denton, Hays, Henderson, Milam, Smith, Travis and Williamson counties.
“Through this disaster declaration, we will be able to provide additional assistance to Texans and communities who have experienced property damage and localized power outages from this ice storm,” Abbott said.
The ice storm brought tree limbs snapping and crashing onto power lines. More than 170,000 Austin households were without power for several days, with some going more than 10 days without power.
Abbott also requested a presidential disaster declaration for counties in Southeast Texas hit by tornadoes and severe storms in late January. That request includes Harris, Jefferson, Liberty and Orange counties. If that request is granted, residents and businesses in those counties would have access to federal loans and grants.
Religious freedom bills draw bipartisan support
Three bills have been filed in the Texas House aimed at improving Texans ability to practice their religions. The Austin American-Statesman reported that state Rep. Salman Bhojani, D-Euless, filed the bills to expand the state’s list of optional holidays to include more religious holy days; prevent standardized tests being given on those days; and ensure that religious leaders of all faiths can legally perform marriages.
Bhojani, one of the state’s first Muslim legislators, was joined at a news conference by Republican state Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, who is Christian, and fellow Muslim state Rep. Suleman Lalani, D- Sugar Land.
“As legislators, it is our duty to ensure that Texas is the religious freedom state, where we can practice our faith with pride, where we can pray in a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, jamatkhana or gurdwara, where we can love God by any name,” Bhojani said.
Plan to ban TikTok on state-owned devices released
Abbott last week also announced a security plan to ban the use of the popular video app TikTok as well as other software on all state-issued devices, as well as personal devices used to conduct state business. Abbott contends the Chinese-owned company can harvest data from TikTok user’s devices and poses a security risk to Texas.
After Abbott issued the initial order in December, The University of Texas at Austin banned TikTok on all its Wi-Fi networks. The latest security plan also includes other lesser-known apps, such as WeChat. A number of hardware manufacturers are also prohibited from being used by state agencies and employees.
TikTok, which is known for its short videos, is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance and has more than 86 million users in the United States.
A wet January for parts of the state
January brought above-average rainfall for large swaths of East Texas while the rest of the state had below-average precipitation, hydrologist Mark Wentzel wrote in the Texas Water Development Board’s monthly report. Drought conditions expanded by five percentage points to include 54% of the state, while statewide storage in water supply reservoirs is at 72.5% of capacity, down about 10 percentage points from what is normal this time of year.
Drought conditions have been all but eliminated in the eastern portion of Texas, while much of the state is in moderate to severe drought conditions. The worst drought conditions now are in a circle of counties around Bexar County.
Wentzel predicted that except for northeast Texas, much of the state will see expanded drought conditions.
“However, with the anticipated breakup of La Niña conditions later this year, there is some hope that the rest of Texas may see at least some easing of drought conditions as early as May,” he wrote.
Final round of emergency SNAP benefits
This month brings the final allocation of emergency food benefits provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and distributed to eligible households by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. The extra minimum of $95 per household began during the start of the COVID-10 pandemic and has provided nearly $10 billion in added food benefits since its inception. However, Congress recently passed legislation ending the emergency benefits, which go to about 1.6 million Texas households.
“We’re thankful that we’ve been able to help millions of Texans by providing more than $9.7 billion in additional benefits since the Families First Coronavirus Response Act was passed,” said Wayne Salter, HHSC deputy executive commissioner.
Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches, and Cedar Park. Email: gborders@ texaspress.com.