Sept. 16, 2008— -- The line of cars stretched for miles along I-45 South today, filled with evacuees who had been waiting since Saturday to return to their homes in Galveston, Texas, to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Ike.
Galveston, one of the areas hardest hit by the storm's 100 mph winds, is now filled with obliterated homes.
Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas announced today that residents could return to see what was left of their homes and businesses and "gather important belongings" as part of a "look and leave" re-entry plan for 12 hours a day.
"I would make every effort to get them back to Galveston as soon as possible," the mayor said, referring to her pledge to return the city residents to the island. "That being said, we are going to have a 'look and leave' policy beginning now."
But the mayor's promises proved difficult to deliver. With curfew rules still in effect from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every night, to discourage people from staying on the island, residents were told that they would be able to return, but must promptly leave, yet again.
"When it hits 6 p.m., you need to be gone," Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc warned residents. "We have a $2,000 fine that we will enforce."
The announcement, coming just one day after the mayor said the city would likely be closed for another week, came as a surprise to many residents and created a logistical nightmare: Galveston evacuees were essentially given five hours to enter, survey the damage and get out again this afternoon. For some evacuees, who fled as far as Austin or San Antonio, the trip was almost infeasible.
Thousands of anxious Galvestonians sat in a bottleneck along the highway leading into the city -- many infuriated that, instead of picking up the pieces of their homes and properties, they were waiting on the highway in traffic and checkpoints staffed by Texas law enforcement officials and construction crews.
"We had no way to predict traffic flow," one police officer attending the checkpoints told a reporter from ABC News affiliate KTRK-TV.
The situation raises questions about the planning and coordination on the part of law enforcement and FEMA with regard to today's announcement. Galveston still lacks electricity, water, sewer and gas services. There are no medical services available, should residents get hurt in all the debris or inside homes or other buildings that may not be safe.
In Houston, others waited in long lines for basic supplies, like gas, food and water, facing similar frustration.
"We're tired and we're frustrated and we are hungry," one resident told ABC News.
For a fourth day, 1.5 million people were without clean water or electricity. FEMA says it will deliver more than 7 million meals, 5 million gallons of water and 19 million pounds of ice over the next few days.
Eric Smith, logistics manager for FEMA, said coordinating the relief effort "meant moving nearly 300 trucks full of emergency supplies ... to where they are needed the most -- a disaster area larger than the state of New York."
Sharon Alcers picked up a load of water this morning at Randoph Air Force Base in Universal City, Texas, and drove her truck three hours to Houston, where the water and other supplies she carried will reach civilians at the Humble Civic Center in Humble, Texas.
President Bush today traveled to the region to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Ike; in Houston, he praised state and local officials' evacuation plan as "excellent in its planning and in execution." He also called the rescue plan "very bold."
As the grim search for victims who decided to ride out the storm continued, Ike's death toll climbed higher to at least 30, 20 of which came from Galveston and Brazoria counties. Officials can't say for certain how many people remain unaccounted for.
"We can always hope for miracles," Chambers County Sheriff Joe LaRive told ABC News on the prospect of finding more alive.
On the devastated Bolivar Peninsula, there is fear that those who chose to ride out the storm may have been swept out to sea. Emergency workers rescued more than 2,000 people who ignored mandatory evacuation orders. They also saved many stranded pets.
The president urged Texas residents to listen to state and local authorities before going back to their homes.
"The government will reimburse you for your stay" for the next 30 days," he said. He also talked about fuel and water being distributed and getting the electricity grid up and running.
Bush spoke of the "resilience of the people to deal with the tough situations." But for many evacuees, the initial shock of Ike's fury has now given way to painful resignation; the road ahead is daunting for most, and reality has begun to set in.
In the hard hit coastal town of Oak Island, many homes were swept off foundations.
"After seeing this, I would have never imagined this could happen. Absolutely unreal," Oak Island resident Jack Innmon said while holding back tears.
Amy Chance and her family lost three houses. She spent the day sifting through debris, in a fruitless search for the familiar.
"For some reason, I'm looking for Christmas ornaments and mainly just pictures and china," she said. "Because everything else is gone."
ABC News' Jennifer Duck, Viviana Hurtado, Jesus Ayala and Michael Scott contributed to this report.