Sen. Ted Cruz was met with a wave of fury Thursday on his return to Houston from Cancun, Mexico, as critics questioned his decision to travel abroad while millions of Texas residents were without power and safe drinking water amid freezing temperatures that have left at least 21 people dead in the southern United States.

Public outrage has mounted in recent days as officials in Texas have sought to deflect blame for the state’s lack of preparedness for the storms — and Cruz, a prominent Republican figure widely seen as a potential 2024 presidential contender, immediately became an object of scorn for Texans already incensed by state leaders’ response to the crisis.

In an exchange with reporters outside his home in Houston on Thursday night, Cruz said he decided to return from Cancun, after flying there Wednesday, because he “didn’t want all the screaming and yelling about this trip to distract even one moment from the real issues that I think Texans care about.”

Conservatives like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) have been falsely blaming renewable energy as the cause of the state’s massive power outages. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

“It was obviously a mistake,” Cruz said of his decision to go on the trip. “In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it. I was trying to be a dad.”

He expressed regret and said he had decided to come back earlier than he originally intended.

“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 said, adding that he took a coronavirus test Thursday morning, tested negative and then got on an afternoon flight.

“From the moment I sat on the plane, I began really second-guessing that decision and saying, ‘Look, I know why we’re doing this, but I’ve also got responsibilities.’ . . . I needed to be here, and that’s why I came back, and then as it became a bigger and bigger firestorm, it became all the more compelling that I needed to come back,” Cruz said.

He also cast his actions as something any Texan would do on behalf of their family.

“Well, what I would say is I was taking care of my family, the same way that Texans all across the state were taking care of” theirs, Cruz said. “It certainly was not my intention for that to be understood — as critics have tried to paint it — as somehow diminishing the hardship that other Texans have experienced.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates the risk of the coronavirus in Mexico at Level 4 — the agency’s highest level of warning — and says on its website: “Travelers should avoid all travel to Mexico.”

Text messages among a group of Cruz’s neighbors, as first reported by the New York Times, show Cruz’s wife growing frustrated with the power outage at their home and inviting others to join them on a possible trip to Cancun.

“Our house is FREEZING,” Heidi Cruz wrote to the group, noting that their family “couldn’t stand it anymore” and had to stay elsewhere the night before. The text messages were provided to The Washington Post by American Bridge, a Democratic group, and confirmed by a recipient on the text chain who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation.

Heidi Cruz also texted to the group information for flights departing Houston on Wednesday and returning from Cancun on Sunday, with a note about the $309-per-night rate at the Ritz-Carlton Cancun.

Photos that rapidly circulated on social media Wednesday night showed what looked to be the senator at an airport and on a plane. In some photos, a gray mask was visible that appeared to be similar to one Cruz wore at President Biden’s inauguration.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said Thursday that a member of Cruz’s staff had contacted the department to ask for assistance for the senator’s departure on Wednesday.

As Cruz returned to Houston on Thursday, he was seen wearing a Texas-themed mask and wheeling a large black suitcase as he walked through the airport accompanied by two uniformed police officers.

The trip, which lasted about 24 hours, triggered calls from Democrats for Cruz’s resignation as well as a cascade of questions about why the senator decided to leave Texas while millions of his constituents are suffering during the storms and at a time when public health authorities have cautioned against international travel because of the pandemic.

Some Republicans suggested the trip could become fodder for Cruz’s potential rivals for the White House, as well as in his 2024 Senate reelection bid.

“Texas Democrats are going to go after him aggressively on this,” said Republican consultant Doug Heye, who previously was communications director for the Republican National Committee. “And if he runs for president, certainly other Republicans are going to draw that dichotomy with Cruz and say, ‘[Look at] what I did for my constituents in a time of need.’ ”

Heye noted that Cruz and his team appeared to have been unprepared for the images of him at the airport to spread online. He said the photos were reminiscent of the images of President George W. Bush peering through the window of Air Force One to survey the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) lounging on a beach that was closed to the public during a 2017 government shutdown.

In Texas, more than 3 million customers were still in the dark Wednesday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us, which tracks outages nationwide. As of Thursday afternoon, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said the figure was about 325,000. Millions were advised to boil water as the frigid temperatures caused pipes to freeze.

In a statement, Cruz said he and his staff were communicating with state and local leaders to “get to the bottom of what happened in Texas. We want our power back, our water on and our homes warm.”

Cruz was first elected to the Senate in 2012 and narrowly beat former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D) to win reelection in 2018. He ran unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 and, after being one of Donald Trump’s sharpest critics during the primaries, went on to become one of Trump’s staunchest defenders in Congress after Trump’s presidential win, helping to spearhead efforts to challenge Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election.

Cruz is among the featured speakers at next week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which runs the event, said in a text message, “Of course we are looking forward to having Ted Cruz at CPAC.”

In the days since the storms hit, Abbott and some other state Republicans have put blame on frozen wind turbines — an argument contradicted by Abbott’s energy department. Former Texas governor Rick Perry (R) has drawn criticism, as well, for saying that Texans would spend even longer in the freezing cold to “keep the federal government out of their business.”

The Texas Democratic Party called on Cruz to resign over the Cancun trip. In a statement, Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said Cruz “is proving to be an enemy to our state by abandoning us in our greatest time of need.”

“Cruz is emblematic of what the Texas Republican Party and its leaders have become: weak, corrupt, inept, and self-serving politicians who don’t give a damn about the people they were elected to represent,” he said.

The trip also prompted a political action committee, No Excuses PAC, to launch a five-figure radio ad buy against Cruz. The 30-second ad, which calls the senator “Cancun Cruz” and denounces him as “an embarrassment to Texas,” will air on 147 radio stations in Texas, according to the group’s co-founder, Corbin Trent.

Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.), whose district includes part of Dallas and its suburbs, also sharply criticized Cruz’s decision to “fly to Mexico for a vacation while the city that he lives in, Houston, they’re under a boil-water notice, and so many folks are burning whatever they can to stay warm.”

“This is just beyond anything that you would expect — regardless of party — during a crisis like this,” Allred said in an interview on CNN on Thursday afternoon. “You expect public officials to use whatever airtime they have to tell the truth, to give folks information they need to survive and to help with the recovery.”

While outrage at Cruz was growing online, O’Rourke highlighted his efforts to assist Texans during the crisis.

“We made over 151,000 calls to senior citizens in Texas tonight,” O’Rourke tweeted on Wednesday night. “One of our [volunteers] talked to a man stranded at home w/out power in Killeen, hadn’t eaten in 2 days, got him a ride to a warming center and a hot meal. Help us reach more people, join us tomorrow.”

In an interview Monday with San Antonio-based radio host Joe “Pags” Pagliarulo, Cruz said he was fortunate not to have lost power at his Houston home at that point. He urged his fellow Texans to stay home and noted that he had spoken over the weekend with a meteorologist who said the combination of storms could cause as many as 100 deaths in the state this week.

“So don’t risk it,” Cruz said. “Keep your family safe, and just stay home and hug your kids.”

A Cruz spokesman said the senator lost power at his home Monday night after that interview.

Cruz has previously criticized Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who in November hosted a wedding and then traveled to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, as coronavirus cases surged across Texas.

“Hypocrites. Complete and utter hypocrites,” Cruz said in a December tweet, referring to Adler and other Democrats who had flouted guidelines on travel and large group gatherings amid the pandemic.

Cruz also traveled to Jamaica during the Senate’s Fourth of July holiday break last year, flouting public health recommendations to minimize travel during the coronavirus pandemic, said two people with knowledge of Cruz’s schedule, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the senator’s private travel plans. Cruz was visiting a longtime friend from college, the people said. At the time, the CDC had issued a recommendation that Americans “avoid all nonessential international travel,” in an attempt to minimize the risk of contracting the virus. Cruz’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

According to CDC guidelines, after returning to the United States, Cruz should stay home for seven days to quarantine and get tested three to five days after traveling.

New rules put in place by the Biden administration require all passengers on planes returning to the United States to have a negative coronavirus test result before boarding their flight.

While Cruz was being hammered at home over the trip, the reception was different among tourism authorities in Quintana Roo, the Mexican state where Cancun is located.

“We appreciate his visit,” said Marisol Vanegas, the state’s secretary of tourism, “and the visit of everyone else, always.”

Kevin Sieff in Mexico City and Dan Diamond, Mark Berman, John Wagner, Colby Itkowitz and David Weigel in Washington contributed to this report.