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Massive storms, outages force tough decisions amid pandemic

DALLAS (AP) — Ashley Archer, a pregnant, 33-year-old Texas financial adviser, and her husband have been cautious about the coronavirus. They work from home, go out mostly just to get groceries and wear masks whenever they are in public.

But when a friend lost power amid the winter storms that have left millions of Texans without heat in freezing temperatures, the couple had to make a decision: Should they take on additional risk to help someone in need?

Archer said they didn’t hesitate. They took her husband’s best friend into their suburban Dallas home.

“He’s like family,” she said. “We weren’t going to let him freeze at his place. We figured, ‘OK, we’re willing to accept a little bit of risk because you’re not in our little pandemic group.’”

Weighing the risks in the pandemic era is fraught enough. But the storms and outages that have hit a big swath of the U.S. over the past several days have added a whole new layer of complexity.

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Some electricity restored in Texas, but water woes grow

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Power was restored to more homes and businesses Thursday in states hit by a deadly blast of winter that overwhelmed the electrical grid and left millions shivering in the cold this week. But the crisis was far from over in parts of the South, where many people still lacked safe drinking water.

In Texas on Thursday, about 325,000 homes and businesses remained without power, down from about 3 million a day earlier, though utility officials said limited rolling blackouts were still possible.

The storms also left more than 320,000 homes and businesses without power in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. About 70,000 power outages persisted after an ice storm in eastern Kentucky, while nearly 67,000 were without electricity in West Virginia.

And more than 100,000 customers remained without power Thursday in Oregon, a week after a massive snow and ice storm. Maria Pope, the CEO of Portland General Electric, said she expects power to be restored by Friday night to more than 90% of the customers still in the dark.

Meanwhile, snow and ice moved into the Appalachians, northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, and later the Northeast. Back-to-back storms left 15 inches (38 centimeters) of snow in Little Rock, Arkansas, tying a 1918 record, the National Weather Service said.

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NASA rover lands on Mars to look for signs of ancient life

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A NASA rover streaked through the orange Martian sky and landed on the planet Thursday, accomplishing the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on Mars.

Ground controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, leaped to their feet, thrust their arms in the air and cheered in both triumph and relief on receiving confirmation that the six-wheeled Perseverance had touched down on the red planet, long a deathtrap for incoming spacecraft.

“Now the amazing science starts,” a jubilant Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief, said at a news conference, where he theatrically ripped up the contingency plan in the event of a failure and threw the document over his shoulders.

The landing marks the third visit to Mars in just over a week. Two spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China swung into orbit around Mars on successive days last week. All three missions lifted off in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars, journeying some 300 million miles in nearly seven months.

Perseverance, the biggest, most advanced rover ever sent by NASA, became the ninth spacecraft since the 1970s to successfully land on Mars, every one of them from the U.S.

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Biden repudiates Trump on Iran, ready for talks on nuke deal

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration said Thursday it’s ready to join talks with Iran and world powers to discuss a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, in a sharp repudiation of former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” that sought to isolate the Islamic Republic.

The administration also took two steps at the United Nations aimed at restoring policy to what it was before Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018. The combined actions were immediately criticized by Iran hawks and are likely to draw concern from Israel and Gulf Arab states.

In addition to signaling a willingness to talk with Iran, the administration also reversed Trump’s determination that all U.N. sanctions against Iran had been restored. And, it eased stringent restrictions on the domestic travel of Iranian diplomats posted to the United Nations.

The State Department announced the moves following discussions between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his British, French and German counterparts, and as Biden prepares to participate, albeit virtually, in his first major international events with world leaders.

The announcement came a day before Biden is to speak to leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized democracies and later in the day address the annual Munich Security Conference. At both, Biden is expected to discuss his commitment to multilateral diplomacy and his desire to undo damage that Trump’s positions may have caused over the previous four years.

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Texas prices for lodging, necessities skyrocket amid storm

Hotel rooms for $1,000 a night. Gasoline prices spiking. Even bottled water prices doubling or tripling overnight.

Officials in Texas say the winter storm that knocked out power and water to millions of residents is providing an opportunity for some unscrupulous merchants to take advantage of the situation by charging exorbitant prices for essential supplies.

A system set up Wednesday in Houston for residents to report incidents of price gouging received more than 450 complaints in less than 20 hours, said Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, the chief civil attorney for Texas’ largest county.

“The main types of things we’re seeing is hotels setting prices at ridiculous rates,” Menefee said. “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.”

Dashawn Walker, 33, searched for a hotel room Tuesday night to avoid the cold of his powerless Dallas apartment. After finding all the rooms in Dallas booked, he ended up driving to an extended stay hotel in the suburb of Lewisville only to pay $474 for a one-night stay.

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Spain arrests 80 in 3 nights of riots over rapper’s jailing

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Protests over the imprisonment of a rapper convicted of insulting the Spanish monarchy and praising terrorist violence were marred by rioting for the third night in a row Thursday.

The plight of Pablo Hasél, who began this week to serve a 9-month sentence in a northeastern prison, has triggered a heated debate over the limits of free speech in Spain and a political storm over the use of violence by both the rapper’s supporters and the police.

The ruling coalition’s junior partner, the far-left United We Can (Unidas Podemos) party, on Thursday filed a petition for a “total pardon” for Hasél and another rapper, Valtònyc, who fled to Belgium in 2018 to avoid trial on charges of “glorifying” terrorism.

But potentially deepening the tension, court authorities in the northeastern Catalonia region announced that Hasél lost a recent appeal and is looking at an additional prison sentence of 2 1/2 years for obstructing justice and assault in 2017. The sentence can be appealed again before the country’s Supreme Court.

Like the two previous nights, the protests began Thursday with large gatherings in several cities that were, at first, mostly peaceful.

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Experts warn against COVID-19 variants as states reopen

NEW YORK (AP) — As states lift mask rules and ease restrictions on restaurants and other businesses because of falling case numbers, public health officials say authorities are overlooking potentially more dangerous COVID-19 variants that are quietly spreading through the U.S.

Scientists widely agree that the U.S. simply doesn’t have enough of a handle on the variants to roll back public health measures and is at risk of fumbling yet another phase of the pandemic after letting the virus rage through the country over the last year and kill nearly 500,000 people.

“Now is not the time to fully open up,” said Karthik Gangavarapu, a researcher at Scripps Research Institute whose team works closely with San Diego health officials to watch for mutant versions of the coronavirus. “We need to still be vigilant.”

Over the past two weeks, the daily averages for both coronavirus cases and deaths have dropped by about half in the U.S., according to data from Johns Hopkins University. And as of Wednesday, over 40 million people — about 12% of the population — had received at least one dose of a vaccine.

But experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky say the downward trend could reverse itself if new variants take hold.

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‘Obviously a mistake’: Cruz returns from Cancun after uproar

DALLAS (AP) — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz faced widespread condemnation on Thursday for taking a tropical vacation with his family in Mexico while his home state was paralyzed by a deadly winter storm that left many without power or safe drinking water.

As criticism of the trip mounted, Cruz returned to Texas and said it was “obviously a mistake.”

Cruz is already one of the most villainized Republicans in Congress, having created adversaries across the political spectrum in a career defined by far-right policies and fights with the establishment. More recently, he emerged as a leader in former President Donald Trump’s push to overturn the results of the November election. Billboards calling for his resignation stood along Texas highways earlier in the month.

By Thursday, Cruz was knocked by everyone from the chair of the Texas Republican Party to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive firebrand.

The question is whether the damage will have a lasting impact on Cruz’s political prospects. Narrowly reelected to the Senate in 2018, he won’t face voters in Texas again until 2024. He’s also seen as a likely candidate for the GOP presidential nomination that year.

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Democrats consider piecemeal approach to immigration reform

WASHINGTON (AP) — After decades of failed attempts to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden are signaling openness to a piece-by-piece approach.

They unveiled a broad bill Thursday that would provide an eight-year pathway to citizenship for 11 million people living in the country without legal status. There are other provisions, too, but the Democrats are not talking all-or-nothing.

“Even though I support full, comprehensive immigration reform, I’m ready to move on piecemeal, because I don’t want to end up with good intentions on my hands and not have anything,” said Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar. “I’d rather have progress.”

The pragmatic approach is a clear recognition of the past failures to deliver on a large-scale immigration overhaul — and how success could be even more difficult in a highly polarized, closely divided Congress.

The Democrats’ legislation reflects the broad priorities for immigration changes that Biden laid out on his first day in office, including an increase in visas, more money to process asylum applications, new technology at the southern border and funding for economic development in Latin American countries.

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“Mr. Kitty” goes virtually to Washington over GameStop saga

The social media movement that made a beloved icon of GameStop enthusiast Keith Gill continued to rally behind the YouTube personality known as Roaring Kitty as he testified to Congress on Thursday about his role in last month’s stock market frenzy.

“Today, the world shall know his name,” cheered one online fan on the social media website Reddit, superimposing a headshot of Gill over a boxer’s body.

The 34-year-old Gill became the most visible face of the GameStop rally largely because of his videos, where he wore a red headband and colorful, cat-themed T-shirts as he spent hours each week talking about the stock from the basement of his home in a suburb of Boston.

For the virtual hearing of the House Committee on Financial Services, Gill wore a jacket and tie, although the headband could be seen hanging on a poster of a kitten with the words “Hang in There!” —- a crowd-pleasing reference to people still holding onto GameStop shares after its remarkable rollercoaster rise and fall.

Gill reaped a big profit in the troubled video-game company after months talking about GameStop stock on his YouTube channel and on the Reddit forum WallStreetBets, where he went by the pseudonym DFV, for ‘deep value’ plus an expletive.