After Ike, Thousands of Evacuees Wait to Return Home

As rescue teams scour the debris for those who rode out Hurricane Ike Saturday, hundreds of thousands of evacuees are waiting to return to their homes.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff estimated Saturday that 2.2 million people evacuated Texas and more than 130,000 evacuated Louisiana in the days and hours before the storm.

They are now scattered throughout northern Texas and Louisiana, and elsewhere, in shelters, hotels and homes of family members – but with the focus primarily on search-and-rescue efforts, there is no word yet on how soon they should return.

“It all depends on how hard their area was hit,” said Veronica Mosgrove, spokeswoman for the Homeland Security office in Louisiana.

She told hundreds of evacuees from Texas have taken shelter in state-run facilities in Louisiana. More than 200 people, some of whom were still waiting to go home after Hurricane Gustav, are also staying in four shelters set up for evacuees with special medical needs.

“In many areas, our hotels are filled,” Mosgrove added.

The unusually large category 2 storm cut power to millions of people as it roared ashore early Saturday, and it was unclear when services would be restored.

In San Antonio, shelters were holding nearly 5,000 evacuees. Officials thought that was likely the peak number the city would receive, but anticipated getting some additional evacuees from Houston whose homes were damaged by the storm or lost power.

The Red Cross and Salvation Army, along with local churches and other groups, are also providing shelter.

Leann Murphy, director of the Central Louisiana Red Cross, told there are well over 1,000 evacuees in Red Cross facilities throughout the state. They are staying in shelters ranging from churches to gymnasiums, mostly equipped with cots and showers.

She said the evacuees are being provided with meals and medical services.

At the American Red Cross of Central Texas, spokeswoman Elaine Acker said the evacuees are starting to head home. She said more than 6,100 people were staying in the central Texas shelters alone, but that the number has since dropped to under 5,000.

She said Texas evacuees mostly stayed within the state – in San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and even El Paso.

But the word from officials is to sit tight while search-and-rescue teams do their work.

“We want people to wait until it’s safe,” Acker said. “They’re not going to have power … the roads have debris all over them in many places … if they need to be here, there’ll be a place for them.”

Jim Taylor, with the Salvation Army of Texas, told FOX News the organization had dished out 20,000 meals to evacuees in the past four or five days. But he said the group is now sending units to places like Galveston to feed the first responders.

In Tyler, Texas, temporary home to more than 3,400 evacuees, it was quickly becoming clear that at least one shelter there was not a viable long-term solution.

Even as Ike's winds and rains passed over Tyler hours after the storm appeared to have unleashed its worst damage, officials were discussing with the state what to do about a vacant Wal-Mart serving as a shelter to 1,600.

“They're telling them that shelter is not a long-term solution," Tyler spokeswoman Susan Guthrie said. "If this goes on, that's not a place where we want to keep people."

Evacuee Terrance Bryant was staying at a church-turned-shelter in Tyler. After evacuating from Beaumont two weeks ago ahead of Hurricane Gustav, he said he was frustrated.

"I can't do this for two weeks," said Bryant, 22, who was at the shelter with three siblings and his mother. "I just can't."

Despite the inconvenience, evacuees said they were glad they made the decision to leave.

"I'm worried, but some people made the stupid mistake of staying down there," Bryant said.

Retired nurse Ida Mayfield said that because Gustav hit Louisiana and not Beaumont two weeks ago, many decided not to evacuate ahead of Ike.

"Two o'clock this morning made a believer out of all of them," said Mayfield, 52, adding that she spoke to a friend who was on a roof waiting for help after calling 911. "They're scared now."

Mosgrove said the aftermath did not seem to be approaching that of Hurricane Katrina, when evacuees from New Orleans fanned out across the country and in many cases never returned.

“From our end … it’s more under control,” she said.'s Judson Berger and The Associated Press contributed to this report.