GALVESTON, Texas, Sept. 24, 2008 — -- For the first time since Hurricane Ike blew away much of the city, residents of Galveston began streaming home today.
But the city is in such bad shape, those hurrying back home were given an ominous warning: Bring tetanus shots, rat poisoning and don't bring children.
If that's not enough, planes are spraying the city with insecticide to prevent a boom in the mosquito population, the water isn't drinkable and people are urged to wear face masks to guard against inhaling toxic mold that is proliferating in the sweltering city.
Nevertheless, highways into Galveston were jammed with cars today, lines as long as 14 miles long, as many of the city's 57,000 citizens hurried back to see what, if anything, was left of their homes.
What they are finding is heartbreaking.
"People who are off the island don't understand what they're coming home to. They don't," Teresa Castillo, who rode out the storm along with Mary Gonzalez, told "Good Morning America."
Many are coming home to nothing; Walt Burger's house was washed out to sea. While his insurance will cover the house, his land has been swallowed up.
"We were driving the other day and I said I can't look at it. It makes me want to throw up. It's so disturbing," Castillo said.
"Their homes have been flooded. And they have no power, no gas. And it's going to be a long time before they will," City Manager Steve LeBlanc told "GMA."
Most families returned to find small pieces of what their lives had been; thousands found their homes infested with mold and mildew, and their belongings ruined. Others only found pieces of roofs and bathroom tiles.
Roughly 75 percent of Galveston's homes are uninhabitable. There is limited sewage facilities and few medical services. Rats and snakes have infested the city's ruins. And the city is under a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. curfew.
LeBlanc said some hotels in Galveston are reopening and will be available for residents who return and find that their homes are uninhabitable, but he expects those rooms will be quickly snapped up.
City officials are working on a plan to provide temporary shelters on the mainland for people whose homes are not habitable and set up a shuttle service so they can make repairs during the day.
Remarkably, Galveston is already showing signs of coming back to life. Some stores and restaurants are reopening and power is back on for some homes.
While surveying the damage, residents were steadfastly committed to rebuilding.
"I was 5 years old when my mother and father brought us here, and I am 58 years old now and this was my home," Galveston resident Jim Moreno told ABC News. "This island is where I am from, and I have a lot of memories here, a lot of memories here."
Galveston's mayor and other city officials flew to Washington this week asking for $2.5 billion to help the rebuilding.
"This is our island. We are going to rebuild it and we are going to rebuild it bigger and better than it was," Mayor Pro Tem Danny Weber said.
Despite all they'd lost, most were optimistic for the future.
"All of my pictures of my grandchildren are gone, vacation pictures are gone, everything is gone," Mary Helen Moreno said. "There are no memories left, except new ones we are going to have to start."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.