Traffic backed up for 20 miles along Interstate 45, the one route onto Galveston Island, with residents jockeying for position with utility workers, repair crews and police trying to begin repairs to the city wrecked by Hurricane Ike five days ago.
The city announced Tuesday that people could briefly return under a new "look and leave" plan, causing evacuees all over the state to pack up and head for the coast.
Hours later, it abruptly halted the policy, but some in the long line Wednesday angrily complained they'd never heard the policy was rescinded.
"I don't understand this," Carlos Azucena said, motioning toward repair workers after waiting in line three hours before he was rejected in his third try to go home. "You see those other people. They don't even live here; I live in Galveston."
Ike's death toll in the U.S. hit 50 Wednesday and appeared to level off in Texas, where search teams pulled out of Galveston having searched the entire island for survivors. The task force had checked on almost 6,000 people and performed more than 3,500 rescues since Friday. Seventeen people have died in the state.
In Houston, most of the nation's fourth-largest city was still without power and people were still lining up at dozens of distribution centers for basic needs. In his second stop in the state since Ike, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said distribution of food and water was going smoothly.
"I'm happy to see that things are moving there," said Chertoff, who also reviewed operations at FEMA's primary distribution center. "We will continue to make sure the flow to the (centers) works uninterrupted."
His appearance came a day after local officials complained that supplies were slow in getting to distribution points, and that the entire process had glitches.
Emergency utility crews were among the long line trudging toward Galveston, and the crowd of residents was only delaying repairs, officials said.
"It's not a good scenario," said Raquelle Lewis, a Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
Lewis pleaded with Galveston residents not to waste scarcely available fuel by trying to head home.
Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc said police and county officials were working on opening more emergency lanes for first responders.
"We'll get it cleared up. We'll get it unclogged," he said.
City and state officials still want people who stayed through the storm to get off the island because of concerns a growing threat of disease. Dr. David Lakey, state health commissioner, said he has seen respiratory illnesses, minor traumas such as burns and falls, stress and fatigue.
"The capacity to take care of moderate injuries and illnesses is not here at this time," Lakey said. "It's my opinion that individuals should not be living on the island at this time."
The University of Texas Medical Branch hospital won't be able to take patients for a month or more. Seriously injured people are flown to Houston or elsewhere for treatment.
Galveston County Medical Examiner Stephen Pustilnik confirmed the first death in nearby Brazoria County and provided details on the five Galveston deaths: One drowned in a car, one was found in a hotel room, two dialysis patients died when the power went out and their machines failed, and a cancer patient on a breathing machine also died in the power outage.
Others remained missing despite welfare checks from beach patrols and Red Cross workers. In some cases, searchers were told that a resident had stayed on the peninsula for the hurricane, but had not been seen since.
In those instances, searchers checked the last place where the person was seen, then gave their names to local emergency managers for follow up, said Chuck Jones, a task force team leader. At times, information conflicted, with one neighbor saying a person had stayed for the storm and another saying they had evacuated before it hit.
A zoo lion that spent the storm in the sanctuary of a Baptist church in Crystal Beach was moved inland Wednesday, zoo owner Michael Ray Kujawa said.