HOUSTON – The nation's fourth-largest city began flickering back to life Sunday after Hurricane Rita (search). Airports bustled, businesses reopened and traffic moved easily over freeways. Officials dispatched buses to bring back thousands of evacuees from shelters.
On Monday, more and more traffic lights were working properly and a long line of customers waited outside a downtown Starbucks as it reopened for the first time. Customers sat outdoors with their drinks despite hot, humid weather.
Sunday was the first day of a staggered re-entry plan drawn up by authorities hoping to avoid a rerun of the pre-storm evacuation, when stranded Houstonians and abandoned cars littered freeways after helpless drivers burned through gas in the gridlock. Rita had spared Houston severe damage by veering east toward the Louisiana-Texas state line when it hit early Saturday.
Plenty of businesses remained closed Sunday, with windows taped or boarded up, as employees who scattered during Rita's approach dribbled back home. But employers who rounded up enough workers gamely opened their doors.
"We tried to open Saturday but we couldn't find enough people," Target employee Vernon Green said minutes after the store opened with abbreviated hours. "We're just going day-to-day."
At Pappas Seafood, a sign read, "Come on in, open at 11. Incredible!" The marquee at Kenneally's Irish Pub said: "Rita who?"
A supermarket near downtown had long lines at registers 15 minutes after opening despite a near-empty produce section and depleted packaged meat and dairy aisles.
"I was without power yesterday for about five hours, but now that it's back on, I'm hungry and need some beef," said Yvette Gatling, a 34-year-old lawyer, who got her wish at the meat counter.
On Sunday, only residents of the northwest quadrant of the city were encouraged to return, but cars streamed in elsewhere, sometimes with the complicity of officials.
"I am not going to wait for our neighbors to the north to get home and take a nap before I ask our good people to come home," said John Willy, the top elected official in Brazoria County (search), along the Gulf Coast south of Houston. "That is ridiculous."
Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on the southbound lanes of Interstate 45 (search) north of Houston on Sunday evening, with a seemingly endless stream of charter buses, cars and sport utility vehicles clogging the highway and adjacent access roads.
Gasoline containers were strapped on the roofs of many vehicles, while officers stationed every few miles were helping stranded drivers.
The city's two main airports, George Bush Intercontinental (search) and the smaller William P. Hobby (search), resumed service Sunday morning. They were shut down Friday as Rita bore down on the Gulf Coast. Houston-based Continental Airlines was operating 249 flights out of the city, with plans to restore its smaller Continental Express and Continental Connection branches on Monday.
Lights blinked on in hundreds of thousands of homes. CenterPoint Energy, the main power provider for greater Houston, reported 300,000 customers without electricity Sunday, down from 600,000 a day earlier.
More gas stations opened, with lines of motorists eager to tank up.
Frank Mendoza, 64, was mowing grass in front of a building next to a Citgo station where a tanker truck drove up and drivers quickly followed.
"We've got the gas. People just need to be patient," Mendoza said. "I'm thinking of filling up myself, but all I need to do is top off, because I planned ahead." Four 5-gallon gas cans sat in the back of his pickup truck.
Fuel shortages posed perhaps the biggest challenge to the massive exodus ahead of the storm. Cars were marooned on the main freeways out of town, and buses had to deliver evacuees to shelter.
Houston Mayor Bill White urged essential employees to return to work in the city, including people who work at grocery stores and gas stations.
"There is some fuel available in tankers, but they can't deliver it if you're not there," he said.