- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005

HOUSTON — Frustrated and exhausted, thousands of people returned to their Texas homes yesterday to find relatively little damage from Hurricane Rita after they were part of one of the largest mass evacuations in U.S. history.

Though Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Houston Mayor Bill White pleaded with people not to come back, a steady stream of vehicles headed into the city after daybreak as residents decided it was safe to return.

Gasoline remained scarce, and police directed a long line of cars waiting for up to three hours outside one of the only stations pumping yesterday morning.

Frank Ovalle of Galveston — 90 percent of the population of which fled ahead of the storm — sat in his brother’s car waiting as the last rain clouds from Hurricane Rita hovered overhead.

Mr. Ovalle left Galveston on Wednesday afternoon and spent 36 hours in his car with his wife and two children. They made it only to the Woodlands, a suburb of Houston, less than 100 miles away, eating only potato chips and soda.

“They kept giving us false hope, saying they were going to open up the counterflow lanes,” to let traffic get away from the coast faster, Mr. Ovalle said. “If they didn’t say they were going to open up the counterflow lanes, I would have bailed.”

Mr. Ovalle eventually broke into the home of a relative in Houston so his family and that of his brother, who left Friday and made the journey in about 45 minutes, would have a place to stay.

Carlos Garcia, 18, spent 12 hours on the freeway Thursday and ended up in a suburb north of Houston. His family had intended to drive to a relative’s home near Waco, but gave up because of the traffic jams.

It took them just 30 minutes to get back into the city yesterday. The Garcias also ignored the pleas to stay out because they wanted to get back to their business before any potential looters were tempted.

“We have a business, a mechanic’s shop, to protect,” he said. “We also wanted to beat everyone else coming back from Dallas, because we didn’t want to get stuck in traffic again.”

Being stuck in the path of a hurricane was frightening, Mr. Garcia said. “We tried not to think about it too much, but we were thinking the trees were going to fall down, and we were going to get flooded.”

Kis Kendrall-Whitney, 20, brought bottles of juice, soda and cans of food with her from the coastal refinery town of Texas City to Houston, but she was packing it back into the car yesterday.

She initially had planned to head for Dallas, but stayed with friends in Houston because of the traffic. She decided to go back after the power went out in the friends’ home early yesterday morning. “There is electricity in Texas City, and [the police] said it is all clear to come back,” she said.

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