Hoping to avoid the evacuation debacle that stranded hundreds of thousands of motorists in a super-size traffic snarl of overheated tempers and out-of-gas vehicles, local and state officials implored residents Saturday not to rush home in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, which barely glanced a blow at this metropolis.
Gov. Rick Perry (R), the mayors of Houston and Galveston and the top elected officials of Harris County were all on message. Enunciating each word slowly, Houston Mayor Bill White addressed a mid-day news conference: "Do not come back until word is given by local authorities." The plainspoken mayor of the city-island of Galveston, Lyda Ann Thomas, said this: "Citizens will be turned away."
Citing the problems that occurred in the largest evacuation ever conducted in Texas as Rita appeared headed here, officials announced a staggered return schedule. The plan is designed to repopulate the area of its more than 2.5 million evacuees in three stages, Saturday through Tuesday. Nonetheless, what appeared to be thousands of cars began streaming toward Houston along major interstates by mid-afternoon.
To help ease the pressure to return immediately, the superintendents of a dozen school districts, including Houston, said schools would close Monday and Tuesday for about a million students. Nonessential municipal offices and courts will also be closed for the first part of the week.
Two other reasons for keeping highways free of gridlock, officials said, were the scarcity of gasoline in the area, and the need to give federal and military vehicles carrying disaster-relief personnel and supplies a clear route to Beaumont and the other east Texas points that bore the brunt of Rita's 120-mph winds.
"It's critically important that we keep roads clear today," said Steve McCraw, the state director of homeland security. Traffic backups, he said, had the potential to tie up law enforcement officers needed in more-stricken areas farther east. "It's . . . a public safety threat," he said. "We don't need to divert other public resources right now to handling traffic."
With the refueling of empty gas stations incomplete, Perry appealed to fuel terminal operators to remain open over the weekend so the state could begin filling stations along major roadways.
"We do not have enough fuel along the return routes and in Houston to accommodate the return of everyone who evacuated," said Perry at a news conference in Austin. "If Texans will be patient and follow [the staggered return] plan, they will find their return trip to be easier and more efficient."
Prepared for the worst, the nation's fourth-largest city and its surrounding communities fared well during the hurricane. "This community has pulled out okay," White said. Relatively light wind damage was reported, along with scattered power outages.
Coastal towns along Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula experienced minimal storm surge. A fire destroyed two buildings and injured one woman at the height of the storm early Saturday in Galveston. The water and sewage pumps in the coastal refinery city of Baytown malfunctioned during the hurricane, and residents were asked to conserve water Saturday while the city worked on the problem.
But the area's greatest concern of post-storm flooding -- such as that Tropical Storm Allison brought to Houston and Harris County in 2001 -- appeared to be put to rest by early afternoon. Officials who had inspected the bayous that snake through Houston and Harris County found them rising only slightly, mostly because of flood control systems and the small amount of rain.
"What you saw in New Orleans after Katrina, you are not going to see that in Houston," Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said. "The bayous are working as they should. . . . We're not facing a 25-foot storm surge. Your house won't be flooded."
Despite official pleas for an orderly return, hundreds of residents appeared to take to the highways. By early afternoon, a six-mile line of cars was reported heading south from Dallas to Houston along Interstate 45. Some of those who arrived in Houston found few gasoline stations open and hours-long lines.
Hundreds of insistent Galveston residents drove to the blocked causeway that leads to the island and parked, determined to stay in their cars until they were allowed to drive on.
"I got cursed out by a bunch of them, and when I said there were orders they couldn't get through some people called us liars," Lt. Tommy Hansen of the Galveston County Sheriff's Office told Houston's KPRC-TV. "I said, 'Believe me, I'm not out here for my health.' " By mid-afternoon, Galveston authorities relented, allowing residents and business owners with picture identification to go onto the island, where 65 percent of the area has no electricity. Surfers and sightseers were turned away.
Houston's normally crowded Hermann Park was almost empty except for people who decided to ride out the storm in town. Among the walkers were Peter Engler and his sister, Rachel, who had packed up their cars to evacuate to Oklahoma City and then changed their minds when they saw televised reports of a 200-mile traffic jam.
"There didn't seem to be any point being stopped in our cars in 100 degrees," Peter Engler said. "We thought we'd rather take our chances and stay in an air-conditioned apartment."
Loaded up with bottled water and nonperishable food, they stayed in Rachel's apartment near downtown. Other than being awakened by the wind at 3 a.m. and tolerating a two-hour power outage, their decision to stay instead of evacuating worked. "We lucked out," Rachel Engler said.
Staff writer Steve Hendrix in Austin contributed to this report.