Airlines resumed service and cars flowed easily over freeways as Houston flickered back to life Sunday, avoiding at least for now a repeat of the gridlock that plagued the evacuation before Hurricane Rita.
There were signs the eerie emptiness was lifting in the nation's fourth-largest city: More gas stations offered fuel, and supermarkets, drug stores and restaurants opened their doors.
At Pappas Seafood, a sign read, "Come on in, open at 11. Incredible!" The marquee at Kenneally's Irish Pub read: "Rita who?"
A supermarket near downtown was open, even though no produce was expected to arrive until Tuesday, and the packaged meat and dairy aisles were depleted. Still, the store was bustling within 15 minutes.
"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.
It was the first day of a staggered re-entry plan drawn up by authorities in hopes of avoiding a recurrence of the massive gridlock that stalled freeways and temporarily stranded some Houstonians as they fled days before Rita.
On Sunday, only the northwest quadrant of the city was encouraged to return, but cars were streaming back to other parts of the metropolis as well.
"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, along the Gulf Coast. "That is ridiculous."
"Our people are tired of the state's plan," he added. "They have a plan too, and it's real simple: They plan to come home when they want."
Traffic appeared to be moving smoothly.
Meanwhile, the city's two main airports, Bush Intercontinental and the smaller Hobby, resumed service Sunday morning. They were shut down Friday as Rita bore down on the Gulf Coast.
Continental Airlines, based in Houston, was operating 249 flights out of the city, with plans to restore its smaller Continental Express and Continental Connection branches on Monday.
More gas stations opened, with lines of motorists eager to tank up snaking around blocks.
Groundskeeper Frank Mendoza, 64, was mowing grass in front of a building next to a Citgo station where lines were getting longer as a tanker truck resupplied the pumps with fuel.
"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.
When evacuation orders were given to Houston-area residents, nearly 3 million people left their homes, officials said. The ensuing gridlock raised questions of whether a
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 shelters.
On Sunday, 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.
Lights blinked on in hundreds of thousands of Houston homes. CenterPoint Energy, the main power provider for greater Houston, reported 300,000 customers without electricity Sunday, down from 600,000 a day earlier.
Some residents who were still without power found cool sanctuary at a movie multiplex where employees geared up to open the 24 screens at noon with popcorn popping, hot dogs heating and soda machines stocked with ice.
The upscale Galleria mall was open. Armani's doors were closed, but J. Crew and Kate Spade did brisk business. Fast-food establishments started opening, too — and some had drive-thru lines that rivaled the gas stations.
The lawns of mansions in River Oaks, the city's glitziest neighborhood, by midmorning were dotted with groundskeepers picking up branches and blowing leaves.
A day after Rita spared Houston severe damage by veering east toward the Louisiana-Texas state line, skies were clear and temperatures soared to near 100 degrees.
"The city is half open right now. It's kind of unusual," said Ewing King, 46, making his way around a jogging path at Rice University.
Some businesses used Sunday to prepare to reopen later. Starbucks barista Andrew Soliz, 23, attracted attention as he carried small black tables out of a Starbucks — only to disappoint anyone craving a frappuccino.
"But the minute you open the doors, people start coming," he said.
At a supermarket in east Houston, Al Davis shopped for food with his wife and two children. Employees had already removed plywood used to cover the market's windows and pushed it on a cart to the back of the store as people shopped.
Davis was scheduled to return Monday to his job as a letter carrier. On Sunday, he planned to stay home.
"I'm just going to relax and be thankful for the things we have and the things that didn't happen," he said.