For Ilya Lvovsky and his family, the ride out of town last week was a nightmare. The return home Sunday was a dream.
Their trip Wednesday to Austin to escape Hurricane Rita -- slightly less than 200 miles east of their Clear Lake City home -- turned into a 33-hour ordeal that averaged 6 mph, used up the two full tanks in their cars and their 20-gallon reserve and turned Lvovsky into a bold line-cutter at a gas station 60 miles outside Austin so that he could beat the shut-off time for the pumps.
"It was like one of those movies you see about what would happen if you have all these people in one place," he said. "It was unbelievable. It wasn't like an evacuation. It was an exodus."
But the trip home was more like what they expected. They arrived in 31/2 hours, averaging 65 mph. No need to fill up the cars en route. The 20-gallon reserve they bought in Austin arrived intact. "The return was excellent," said the tobacco company representative, 24.
Some of the estimated 2.5 million evacuees began trickling back home to Houston and surrounding Gulf Coast communities on Sunday. Despite intense scrutiny by local officials and media to see how drivers would fare during the reentry, there were no headline-grabbing incidents. Highways leading south and east into Houston and Harris County were buzzing with cars, but there were no bumper-to-bumper 200-mile backups. There were no overheated cars, no people pushing cars to conserve fuel and few, if any, cars abandoned along the service roads.
Whether residents were heeding the pleas of state and local officials to return according to a staggered three-day reentry plan was unclear. What was apparent was that at least for Sunday, residents managed to get home in Rita's aftermath with relative ease.
The reentry plan divided the city and county into three areas and asked residents to return voluntarily in shifts Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. "It looks to me like it's working," Houston Mayor Bill White said at a midday news conference.
But Lvovsky's family, which lives in a mandatory evacuation zone a couple of miles from the Johnson Space Center, was not supposed to return until Tuesday. They took their chances and decided to return home early on secondary state highways and not the major evacuation interstate route they took out of town. They were pleasantly surprised at how quickly they arrived back. "All these almost 3 million people that left -- are they not coming back yet?" Lvovsky said. "Or are they coming back at their own pace?"
In an attempt to prevent an immediate repopulation of the area and avoid massive traffic jams, schools, local government and court officials and some private employers announced over the weekend that they would remain closed Monday and perhaps Tuesday and Wednesday. But some workers were told to report to back immediately to get the huge metropolitan area back to normal. They included employees of area hospitals, other health care facilities and pharmacies; the two major airports; gasoline stations; grocery and convenience stores; and refineries. In particular, White made a televised appeal to the owners of gas stations, which largely remained shuttered in and around Houston.
"There is some fuel available in tanker trucks in the area," he said. "Your fellow citizens are counting on you, but you need to show up to work."
The state's failure to ensure adequate fuel along evacuation routes and delaying the opening of contra-flow lanes on interstate highways leading out of Houston -- along with residents' overwhelming desire to leave, whether or not they lived in a mandatory evacuation zone -- overwhelmed the highways Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in advance of Rita. As many as 18 hours before Rita struck the Texas coast near Louisiana early Saturday, the storm was forecast to be barreling toward Galveston and Houston as a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. Texans had the images of the death and destruction wrought just three weeks before by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.
"If it hadn't been for Katrina, I don't think we would have gone," Lvovsky said. "It was crazy getting out. But I guess we'd rather be safe than sorry."