Republican leaders in Texas face growing backlash as power crisis deepens

Tom McCarthy and Erum Salam in San Antonio and Joan E Greve in Washington
·5-min read

As Texas struggled on Thursday with a disastrous lack of power, food and water following the deadly storm that brought Arctic temperatures to the southern US, the state’s Republican leadership stood battered by a growing outcry over mismanagement of the power grid and a painfully slow emergency response.

Related: Texas storm: political tensions boil over as vast power outages continue – live

Residents huddled at elementary schools in makeshift “warming centers”, moved in with any relatives and friends who have heat – despite the coronavirus risks – or simply held out inside their homes in deteriorating conditions.

Some do not have enough water to drink, let alone wash. Others are dealing with flooding from burst pipes, unreliable gas and electricity service and “boil water” notices spreading to additional major cities.

And with at least two dozen confirmed deaths in the state since the weekend storm, the National Weather Service announced on Wednesday that a new storm front would likely bring another round of frigid temperatures to Texas and “significant ice accumulations”.

The immediate risks for the most vulnerable residents remained exposure, malnourishment and the threat of fires or carbon monoxide poisoning as residents sat inside cars, brought grills indoors, and used fireplaces for the first time in years in an attempt to stay warm.

But the state’s Republican governor, nationally elected officials and Republican-led state legislature were dealing separately with a growing backlash at the inability to restore power for days as residents stood in long lines for paltry supplies of groceries and queued for miles for gasoline.

A focus of particular wrath on Thursday was Senator Ted Cruz, who was spotted leaving frigid Houston Wednesday on a flight bound for Cancun, Mexico, the popular beach destination south of the border.

Cruz “is vacationing in Cancun right now when people are literally freezing to death in the state that he was elected to represent and serve”, the former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, who made a strong run against Cruz for his Senate seat in 2018 and then ran for president in the 2020 election, said on MSNBC.

O’Rourke blamed decades of Republican leadership in the state for failing to embrace alternative energy and maintain durable energy infrastructure. “There has been complete Republican control of the state of Texas for 20 years,” O’Rourke said.

Cruz finally confirmed he had taken the trip and on Thursday afternoon was returning to Houston.

In an effort to stay ahead of constituents’ wrath about the power crisis and lack of preparedness or information, the governor, Greg Abbott, announced a full-scale investigation into the state’s standalone energy utility – whose leadership Abbott himself appointed.

He also tried to shift the blame for the power grid failure to a supposed failure of windmills, which account for about 7% of power generation in Texas.

“This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said on Fox News.

That was a gross mischaracterization of the power crisis, which Abbott elsewhere admitted was brought on mainly by frozen natural gas pipelines that had knocked power plants offline.

“Every source of power Texas has has been compromised,” Abbott said at a news conference on Wednesday.

On Thursday at a White House briefing, the press secretary, Jen Psaki, said that weather effects on solar and wind energy in Texas were “the least significant factors” in the disaster.

And homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall said the dire storms “demonstrate to us that climate change is real and it’s happening now and we’re not adequately prepared for it”.

Both the state plants and the pipelines are run by the state utility, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), which was set up independent of other states’ grids so that Texas, whose economy is built on the fossil fuels industry, would not be as subject to federal energy regulations.

Even with the grid in tatters, the arrangement was worth it, declared former Texas governor Rick Perry, a Republican who served as energy secretary under Donald Trump.

“Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” Perry wrote in a blogpost.

People wait in near freezing temperatures to fill containers with water in Houston.
People wait in near freezing temperatures to fill containers with water in Houston. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

Residents might disagree. More than 130 of the state’s 254 counties were experiencing water outages or potential contamination, and more than 250,000 residents had not had water service for three days, according to state data.

Store shelves were cleared of food, lines formed at public spigots in parks, firewood was hard to come by and out-of-state plumbers were invited to come work on an epidemic of burst pipes. Hospitals reported oxygen shortages and nursing homes and dialysis centers struggled to stay online.

The Texas national guard was deployed across the state to check on residents and move them to shelters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had sent blankets, provisions, generators and fuel “to ensure the continued availability of backup power,” the White House said. Joe Biden declared a state of emergency in Texas last Sunday.

“We have state leadership – Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor [Dan] Patrick – that want to point fingers at everything except the problem,” the San Antonio Democratic politician Julián Castro told MSNBC.

Ercot’s chief executive, Bill Magness, asked residents for patience. “I am sure when we review this, we’re going to find things we wish we’d done better,” he said in a televised address.

In Houston the emergency recalled the devastation from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the flooding that ensued.

But then as now, no elected Republican could be heard to warn that the state must take action to address the climate change emergency. Instead they sent the opposite message.

“Bottom line: thank God for baseload energy made up of fossil fuels,” Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican with a growing national profile, tweeted on Wednesday.