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Amid water shortages and power outages, Texans cry foul over price gouging for bottled water, gas and $1,000 hotel rooms

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Some businesses in Texas are hitting consumers when they’re down.

Lina Hidalgo, the judge Harris County, the largest county in Texas, said this week that Houston residents, already hit by power outages and severe weather, have complained about exploitative prices. “We’ve heard reports of outrageous prices on necessary items like food, water and housing. We will not tolerate price gouging. Violators can face fines of up to $250,000,” she said.

“The main types of things we’re seeing is hotels setting prices at ridiculous rates,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee told the Associated Press. “We’ve seen allegations of packs of water being sold for two to three times the normal price, or packs of water being divvied up and the individual bottles being sold at excessive prices.”

Price gouging on necessities during a declared emergency in Texas is illegal under the law. That includes “selling or leasing fuel, food, medicine, or another necessity at an exorbitant or excessive price.” Those who do are subject to a civil penalty of up to $20,000 for each violation or up to $250,000 if the victim was over 65 years of age.

Freezing rain and low temperatures have created dangerous conditions in the state. Electrical power outages, frozen pipes bursting in buildings and homes have been reported across the state. To file a complaint, officials recommend residents take a photo of the receipt, and submit them to the county attorney with details of the business, time and date of purchase and brand item.

Winter storm Uri brought severe temperature drops causing a catastrophic failure of the power grid in Texas. About 320,000 people are without electricity in the state, down from 3 million just a day earlier.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said, “No one is exempt from price gouging laws in Texas. Any person selling goods, necessities, or services at an exorbitant price will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I will not stand for any person or business unlawfully taking advantage of Texans,” according to a statement his office posted on Twitter TWTR, +0.65%.

On Thursday, about 325,000 homes and businesses remained without power in Texas, according to the Associated Press, down from about 3 million a day earlier. In Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, 320,000 homes and businesses had no power in Louisiana. There were 70,000 power outages in eastern Kentucky, and almost 67,000 households had no electricity in West Virginia.

Five days after the severe winter storm crippled the state’s power grid, Republican Senator Ted Cruz flew to Cancun on Wednesday with his family, but after photos of the senator at the airport and on the plane led to a backlash on social media, the senator quickly returned to Texas on Thursday, and said he only planned to stay one night.

However, Cruz later told Houston’s KTRK-TV that “the plan had been to stay through the weekend with the family.” He said he had “second thoughts” about the trip to Cancun when he boarded the plane, and said the decision to leave the state while hundreds of thousands of people were without power was “obviously a mistake.”

“When I arrived and saw the initial firestorm, what had started as second thoughts that I had as soon as we left grew even greater,” he told the local television station. “I certainly regret this has become a distraction.” He added, “I was taking care of my family the same way Texans all across the state were taking care of my family.” One reporter described that flub a “Freudian slip.”