By Daniel Trotta
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - After fleeing homes in Hurricane Irma's path several days ago, Florida residents Lee Tinkler and Mercedes Lopez on Tuesday faced far different prospects as they departed from the Orlando hotels where they sought refuge.
Tinkler, a retiree from Jupiter, Florida, said she was about to end "the best experience of my life" after waiting out the storm at a high-end convention hotel with her two daughters, their two babies and seven cats.
But at a nearby Days Inn, Lopez's spirits were low as she shared a bucket of fried chicken with four families from the Florida Keys bunking together in two cramped rooms. They were returning to salvage belongings from destroyed homes.
"I don't have a house, I don't have a job," said Lopez, 50, who works for a gas station that was also devastated. "We go back to nothing."
They are part of a complicated return home after the largest evacuation in U.S. history which saw 6.5 million people flee the storm in Florida.
After surviving what began as one of the fiercest Atlantic storms in a century, many are returning with conflicting emotions. The relief of going home is at times overwhelmed by the logistics of the trip and then putting their pre-storm lives back together.
On social media, travellers traded advice on how to avoid the chaotic scenes many experienced on the way out: long lines for gasoline and traffic so bad that people slept in their cars.
Hoping to avoid such congestion, Cathy Bobal, a 59-year-old retiree from Coconut Creek, Florida, decided on Tuesday to spend a fifth night in Orlando before leaving at 3 a.m.
As she arranged her check-out from the Rosen Center, which reduced rates and waived pet and parking fees for evacuees, others were checking in.
"It's round two," she said. "People are coming in because they don't have power."
Tinkler, 73, left with plans to return the next time a hurricane menaced her home.
"I want to live in this world forever," she said, envisioning disaster reunions with the other guests. "We had a party."
Across town, the group from Marathon, Florida, was ending five nights at Days Inn not knowing whether authorities would even allow them back into their homes.
"It's a total disaster. Our house was destroyed. I've seen the pictures," said Heidi Hernandez, 23, a school teacher. "We're going down there to salvage what we can and then come back up."
(Writing and additional reporting by Letitia Stein; editing by Colleen Jenkins)