Catastrophic winter storm moves east

By Judson Jones, Melissa Macaya, Melissa Mahtani, Meg Wagner and Veronica Rocha, CNN

Updated 8:00 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021
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7:23 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz returns from Cancun after backlash: "It was obviously a mistake"

From CNN’s Keith Allen

KTRK
KTRK

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said flying to Cancun while much of his state suffers without power or water was a mistake.

“Look, it was obviously a mistake, and in hindsight I wouldn't have done it,” the Republican lawmaker told reporters after returning to his Houston home Thursday night.

“I was trying to be a dad. And all of us have made decisions, when you got two girls who have been cold for two days and haven't had heat or power and they're saying, ‘Hey look, we don't have school, why don't we go. Let's get out of here.’ I think there are a lot of parents that would be like, ‘Alright let me see if I can do this, great!’ That's what I wanted to do.”

Cruz also said he regretted leaving his home state in the middle of a crisis almost as soon as he boarded the plane for Cancun.

“I started having second thoughts almost the moment I sat down on the plane, because on the one hand, all of us who are parents have a responsibility to take care of our kids, take care of our family, that's something Texans have been doing across the state,” Cruz said.

“But I also have a responsibility that I take very seriously of for the state of Texas and frankly, leaving when so many Texans were hurting didn't feel right and so I changed my return flight and flew back on the first available flight I could take,” Cruz continued.

“I couldn't take a morning flight because the current restrictions require a Covid test, so I had to get a Covid test this morning, before I could get on a flight back, so I took the first flight I could get after getting the Covid test and testing negative.” 

With protesters audible outside his home, Cruz said he understands the anger many Texans feel toward his decision.

“Of course, I understand why people are upset. Listen, we're in a strange time where we're Twitter's been going crazy and the media is going crazy and there's a lot of venom and vitriol that I think is unfortunate frankly on both sides,” Cruz said. “I think everyone ought to treat each other with respect and decency and try to understand each other more particularly at a time of crisis.”

Cruz lauded Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for calling for an investigation into the Electric Reliability Council of Texas' activities once power is restored.

6:37 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

HHS declares public health emergency for Texas

From CNN’s Ross Levitt

Workers repair a power line in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, February 18.
Workers repair a power line in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, February 18. Thomas Ryan Allison/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency in Texas Thursday, following the brutal winter storms that pounded the state.

The action is retroactive to Feb.11 and provides a wide range of relief, particularly for recipients of various forms of federal aid.

HHS Acting Secretary Norris Cochran said the actions will “protect access to healthcare.”

“HHS stands ready to assist the state of Texas to get aid to those individuals and families most impacted by these storms,” Cochran said in a statement.

President Biden declared an emergency for the state last week. The HHS declaration gives health care providers more flexibility to help those in need of health services during the disaster, the department said.

6:23 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Immigration detention facilities in Texas impacted by weather

From CNN's Priscilla Alvarez

Some immigration detention facilities in Texas are experiencing intermittent power outages as well as interruptions in water service as a result of the winter storm, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

The facilities, which house adults and families, have back-up generator power. 

“ICE staff at each facility is closely monitoring the situation and making adjustments to ensure the health and safety of detainees in our care. Food, water and heat are being provided to all individuals in custody,” the agency said in a statement.

“The agency is committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement. We continue to monitor the changing situation and make accommodations that are in the best interest of the individuals in our custody and our staff,” the statement concluded. 

Customs and Border Protection is similarly experiencing limited issues, such as intermittent power outages, due to the weather. 

“Back-up generators are available to most facilities in the event of loss of power or utilities to CBP facilities,” CBP said in a statement. “Resources are reallocated in cases where power is lost and back-up generators are not available in order to meet mission requirements.”

5:59 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Six suspected weather-related deaths reported in Texas' Taylor County 

From CNN's Gisela Crespo 

Six suspected weather-related deaths have been reported in Taylor County, Texas, according to local authorities. 

The Abilene Fire Department said in a news release it has been made aware of three separate events "where circumstances due to the recent freezing temperatures may have contributed to the loss of life to Abilene citizens." 

A 67-year-old male was found unresponsive outside of a local business on Monday, according to the fire department. The agency added the man "appears to be a transient who spent the night outside and possibly succumbed to the freezing temperatures." 

Abilene Fire responded to a medical emergency at a home Wednesday, where they found a 60-year-old male dead. The man's wife told the fire department the residence had been without power for three days.

"AFD crews noted that the temperature inside of the residence felt as cold as the temperature outside," the fire department said in the release. 

The wife, 72, was transported to a local hospital after she was found to be experiencing a medical issue. 

Also Wednesday, Abilene Fire was informed by a local ambulance provider that a patient had died at a medical facility that was "unable to provide necessary treatment due to the loss of water pressure at that facility." The fire department said in the release the patients was scheduled for transfer to another facility to receive the needed treatment but died before that. The transfer was not delayed due to weather conditions, the fire department noted in the release. 

Taylor County Sheriff Ricky Bishop told CNN three men were found dead in their respective homes in two different cities on Wednesday. 

One of the men was found on the porch of his Tuscola home, while the other two were found inside their homes in Buffalo Gap. Bishop said two of them did not have power in their homes.

While autopsies have not been conducted yet to determine the cause of death, Bishop told CNN all three deaths are suspected to be weather-related. 

5:45 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

"We hope and anticipate no location will be without power tonight," Texas governor says

From CNN’s Keith Allen

Pool
Pool

GOP Texas Gov. Greg Abbott expressed optimism in the increased ability to generate power Thursday afternoon, and added that any remaining outages across the state are tied to downed power lines and the need to manually reconnect lines after the storm.

“There will be more cold temperatures in various regions across the state of Texas tonight, ERCOT will continue to work to manage the power to ensure that power will not go down in residential areas across the state, but we still have to deal with the uncertainty of what is going on in the power generation facilities,” Abbott said.

“We hope and anticipate no location will be without power tonight. The good news is we are starting the evening with every residence in the state of Texas not lacking a generation of power," the governor continued.

“Also, I am told as it concerns the power companies that do the repair of the power lines and as well as the connection to houses that every available repair truck has been dispatched to repair those downed power lines," Abbott noted.

The governor's comments come as the federal Department of Energy said in a new report Thursday that 4% of customers in Texas are now without power, down from more than 25% in the department’s Wednesday update.

As of 5 p.m. ET, more than 365,000 customers in Texas remained without power, according to PowerOutrages.us.

 

5:43 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Nearly 800 public drinking water systems across Texas report issues due to winter weather

From CNN's Hollie Silverman

Donated water is distributed to residents, Thursday, February 18, in Houston. Houston and several surrounding cities are under a boil water notice as many residents are still without running water in their homes.
Donated water is distributed to residents, Thursday, February 18, in Houston. Houston and several surrounding cities are under a boil water notice as many residents are still without running water in their homes. David J. Phillip/AP

Nearly 800 public drinking water systems across the state of Texas are experiencing issues due to winter weather, according to Toby Baker, executive director for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Out of the 7,000 public drinking water systems in Texas, 797 water systems are reporting issues such as frozen or broken pipes or high usage, Baker said. 

There are about 725 systems under boil water advisories, which impacts about 13 million Texans, according to Baker.

Baker said his office is reaching out to systems across the state to identify those experiencing problems. 

They are also reaching out to labs to make sure they are prepared to process the samples that will be needed to end boil water notices across the state.

Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief W. Nim Kidd said that the state focuses on three groups of water – emergency drinking water, agricultural water, and industrial water, such as that used in hospitals.

Kidd explained that industrial water replenishment will remain the biggest challenge as typically other areas of the state would be able to help during an emergency like a hurricane. But in this situation, the entire state is experiencing water difficulties.

They are asking that people who have water to conserve it as they work through the emergency.

5:03 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Here's a look at the storm's impact over the past week

The National Weather Service Prediction Center shared striking images today of the winter storm's impact on the country in just over a week.

The image from Feb. 12 shows how little snowfall was impacting the US. By Feb. 18, much of the US was blanketed with heavy snow and ice and dealing with cold temperatures.

4:48 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Texas governor pledges to reform the organization that operates the state's power grid

From CNN’s Keith Allen

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to reform the independent organization that operates the state’s power grid, saying the events of this week are “absolutely unacceptable and can never be replicated again.”

Abbott blasted the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) in his news conference Thursday, saying again that an investigation will shortly be underway.

“We have already begun the process to make sure that events like this, never again happen in Texas, and it starts with reforming the agency in charge of electric reliability in Texas, which is not what happened this week,” he said.

"Five days before the winter storm hit, the ERCOT CEO assured ERCOT, and I quote, ‘We're ready for the cold temperatures coming our way.'"

“ERCOT’s annual winter assessment, which is designed to ensure that the state is prepared, assured the public that there would be enough power to meet peak demand this winter,” Abbott continued. “ERCOT failed on each of these measures that they said they had undertaken.”

Abbott said he has issued an executive order adding emergency items to the upcoming legislative session, and also asked the state legislature to investigate what happened at ERCOT before and during this week’s deadly winter storm.

“Texans deserve answers about why the shortfalls occurred, and how they're going to be corrected and Texans will get those answers,” he said.

4:32 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Power has been restored to nearly 2 million Texas homes, governor says

From CNN's Hollie Silverman

Power has been restored to nearly two million homes since yesterday afternoon, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said during a news conference Thursday afternoon.

He added that 325,000 Texans remain without power.

Abbott explained that those without power are not without power because of a lack of ability to generate it, but because of different reasons such as downed power lines or a need to manually reconnect premises to power.

Abbott also said he has signed a major disaster declaration that is awaiting approval by President Biden. If the declaration is granted, it will give Texans the ability to apply for individual assistance to restore damage to homes that is not covered by private insurance, he added.