Now that Rita has proven to be a non-menace to Houston, evacuees from the area are starting to return home despite pleas to stay put a little longer.
Houston-bound traffic was at a standstill by noon on I-10 just outside of Columbus as cars from San Antonio met up with people driving in from Austin. The snarl prompted many to pull off the highway, examine maps and consider alternate routes.
Billy Yarborough, who evacuated his Matagorda County home before the storm, opted to drive along a smaller highway to avoid sitting on I-10.
"We did this on the way out, and I am not going to do it again,'' Yarborough said. "I don't mind going a few more miles, if I can keep moving.''
Texas and Houston officials are scrambling to avoid a repeat of the grueling evacuation earlier this week, and they say leaving now is a bad idea. Texas Gov. Rick Perry called today for evacuees to stay put while authorities come up with a plan to stagger their return.
Because of the need to bring rescue crews and supplies into the region, outbound lanes of the highways will not be opened to returning traffic. State officials have not decided whether the government would be willing to refuel incoming cars as they did for those stranded on their way out of town, saying that scenario is too hypothetical. Fuel suppliers are scrambling to find ways to get much-needed gasoline into the area.
"Stay patient. Stay put," Perry said this morning. "I can't say in strong enough terms to those who evacuated the coastal region they should not begin to return for the time being. We are not through assessing the damage. We cannot assure you at this time that your community is safe to return to.''
Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels encouraged people to keep their ears open for the all-clear signal but acknowledged the government's efforts will be largely advisory.
"Coordinating the acts of citizens — let's be serious," he said. "There aren't going to be mandated days on when to come back."
"If they are in a safe place and have power, they shouldn't be making plans right now,'' White said.
Nonetheless, a steady stream of traffic was returning on I-45 South this morning, as evacuees headed back to the Clear Lake area, League City, Dickinson and other communities in north Galveston County that were under a mandatory evacuation.
Along those lines, the Chron now has a Road Home Blog, which looks to have some useful info about current road conditions. I'll want to break out the maps and check out US75, as this post suggests it might be a better alternative.
Here in the Dallas area, it's windy, much cooler than yesterday, and overcast. No rain as yet, though. I refilled the car at a nearby Exxon station and chatted with a fellow who'd run with his family from Clear Lake. They left just after midnight on Thursday and needed 26 hours to get here. I sure hope their trip back is better than that.
UPDATE: Here's the state's plan for evacuees' returns.
Texas Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw today released the following state plan for evacuees returning to the greater Houston area:
· SUNDAY: Those living west of Interstate 45 and north of Interstate 10, including Tomball, The Woodlands, Waller, Hockley, Katy and Brookshire.
· MONDAY: West of State Highway 35 and south of I-10, including Richmond, Stafford, Rosenberg, Sugar Land, Pearland and those living inside Loop 610.
· TUESDAY: East of I-45 and north of I-10, including Liberty and Chambers counties.
Although there are no enforcement powers, McCraw urged evacuees to follow these guidelines to minimize traffic congestion.
"Returning is not only an inconvenience, it's also becoming a public safety crisis. because even if they do get home, there may not be electricity, food in the stores and medical services."