Ike evacuees returning home

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They left not knowing just how destructive the storm might be. On Tuesday, they ignored warnings to stay away and made the long journey home to find out.

"We're driving back because our house is already flooded. We know that there's water inside," Nancy said as tears spilled from her eyes. Seven months' pregnant, she reclined in the passenger seat, a pillow covering her bulging belly, as her husband filled the tank at the San Antonio Travel Center. They were 186 miles from their home near Houston's Hobby Airport.

"My brother's already there, and his house is completely destroyed," she said. "We need to go back."

More than a million people fled the Texas Gulf Coast last week and took refuge with family or in hotels and shelters to wait out the monster storm. Like the Garcias, many are now on an exodus back home -- to communities that may have no power or water, or even houses to live in.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and the mayors of big towns and small burgs, have urged folks to stay away while emergency crews complete search and rescue efforts and work to get the lights back on and the water running.

Flashing signs echoed those warnings all along Interstate 10, which runs the width of Texas from El Paso to Houston and on to places like Beaumont and the devastated communities of Orange and Bridge City.

"Do not travel to Houston and Beaumont," said one. And: "Limited Fuel I-10 East."

In decimated Galveston, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas announced residents and merchants would be allowed to "look and leave" between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., meaning those who show photo IDs can return to gather belongings and assess damage. But that announcement came even as she encouraged an estimated 15,000 people still on the island to leave. By 6pm, after a massive traffic jam, Mayor Thomas rescinded the look and leave order.

"We are not going to go into somebody's house and drag them out," she said. "But they need to consider the risks of staying here. We have a blossoming health and medical concern."

All of that mattered little to those who packed their cars for the second time in a matter of days and endured traffic, fuel lines and waits at roadside restrooms to get home and see for themselves what kind of havoc Ike had inflicted.

It wasn't so much defiance driving them as circumstances, curiosity and the need to start cleaning up.

Reba Goble, a maintenance worker at the University of Houston, was more concerned with missing a paycheck than exasperating city leaders. She waited a half-hour for an open pump at a gas station off I-45 in Huntsville.

"If I don't go back and tough it out," Goble said, "I'm afraid of losing my job."

Jessica Loera, a receptionist from Houston, headed back after staying with relatives in Dallas. Tired of watching the horror stories on TV, she wanted to check things out herself and called the warnings to keep away "unrealistic."

"Hopefully the apartment complex is intact," she said, "but I doubt it because we live right by a bayou."

All along I-10, cars bore east with coolers strapped to their roofs, trunks stuffed with duffel bags and boxes of Cheerios, back seats crammed with children and dogs. Convenience stores along the way stacked empty gas cans ready for purchase right near their doors and flats of water close to the cash registers.

Sylvia Garcia works the register at a Whataburger fast food restaurant off I-10 in east San Antonio. She's seen travelers coming and going for days now, and sees the anxiety etched on their faces.

"Don't worry about it, sweetie, we got you," she said to one evacuee, handing him a free cup of coffee and a box of juice for his little boy.

Buc-ee's travel stop in Luling, 140 miles from Houston, with its flashing sign promising "Homemade Fudge," "Dippin-Dots," "Jerky" and "Fabulous Restrooms," was crammed all day with eastbound travelers.

Will Williford walked his boxer, Maggie, on a patch of grass outside while waiting for his wife and two daughters to use the bathroom. The family lives in hard-hit Orange, but friends said their house escaped any serious damage. A neighbor wasn't so lucky. "He has four feet of water in the house, has a tree in his house and no flood insurance," Williford said.

The Willifords rebuilt after losing their roof to Hurricane Rita in 2005. While they were lucky this time, they wanted to go home to help the good Samaritans who helped them.

"All we can do is go back and help everybody else pick up the pieces," said Williford's wife, Lisa, "and be grateful that we weren't hit so hard ourselves."

Nancy Garcia wished that she was as fortunate. She, her husband and two daughters left Houston Thursday evening and made the nine-hour drive to Monterrey, Mexico, where they waited Ike out with her mother-in-law. They woke at midnight to begin the 500-mile journey back.

Her brother, Nestor, lives only a block and a half away. He evacuated to San Antonio but returned Saturday to see what was left. He called his sister and cried, "My house. My house is all destroyed."

Garcia, at least, still has a home, though the carpet was soaked and a tree toppled onto the trampoline in her back yard. Branches are everywhere, and the house, someone told her, smells like fish.

She'd heard all the warnings to stay out, but felt the need to go home nevertheless.

"We just want to see what we have left," she said.

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