BAYTOWN, TEX. — The floodwaters were receding toward the bayou at last, taking along the crawfish and perch that had been swimming around these houses for days, and what arrived next on the street was a line of trucks and SUVs — the people returning to their neighborhood to see what had happened while they were gone.
The cars turned down Lynnwood Drive, into a development of new homes about 25 miles east of Houston. They passed a playground, a sign advertising "affordable luxury," and 40 homes that had stayed dry, and descended toward the newer end of the development, another 30 homes — plus 10 more under construction — built ever closer to Cedar Bayou. These were the homes, like tens of thousands of others across Texas, that hadn't stayed dry, and almost a week after Hurricane Harvey hit the shore, the first step in figuring out how and whether to rebuild was this: opening the front door.
"Ready?" said Jeff Smith, 44, getting out of a pickup truck along with his son-in-law, then walking toward a house with the address sign 7811.
"I guess," said his son-in-law, Maurice Allen, 26, the homeowner, and they stepped inside, wearing rain boots, and looked around.
Inside, they saw residue reaching up two feet along the walls, covering the electrical sockets. The bed on the first floor was warped and unsalvageable. The bathtub was crusted with mud. The carpet was disintegrating. The Sheetrock, ruined. Seeing it, they understood that whatever work was ahead would involve weeks and months of hammering, tearing, gutting, salvaging, phone calls, paperwork. They stood there, trying to take it in, and wondering: When could Allen, his wife, and three children move back in? Why hadn't this area been recognized as a flood zone? When might this happen again?
"Oh man," Allen said.
"We need to cut out this carpet," Smith said, because the temperature was climbing toward 90, and the next thing coming was mold. So they spent 30 minutes yanking and pulling out the carpeting, first in the living room, then in the bedroom, hauling it into the front yard, until they were soaked in sweat. Smith stopped to catch his breath. He grabbed a beer that had been sitting out since before the flood and walked outside to crack it open. He took a quick swig and spit it out. "Doesn't taste good anymore," he said, and then, into the growing scrap heap of carpet, he tossed aside just one more thing in house 7811 that had gone bad.
Across the development, other people were pulling up, arriving from wherever they had evacuated to — homes of friends, homes of relatives. They arrived carrying brooms, wheelbarrows, industrial fans, trash bags, toolboxes. They parked their cars and walked toward baking muddy lawns, seeing swarms of dragonflies and smelling sewage. In the newest section of homes, where knee-high water still filled the street, two portable toilets were knocked over. Hundreds of beams of lumber, intended for yet more new homes, were scattered across the street and lawns. Soda cans and fruit bobbed in the water.
"Can you believe this?" said Adam Heintschel, 32, as he waded toward his home, where the water had crested halfway up the first floor, ruining a fresh paint job he'd paid for just before the storm hit.
The Lynnwood development had been a place, mostly, for first-time home buyers — people who worked at nearby chemical and natural gas plants and wanted a convenient spot to raise families. The developers had offered three-bedroom lots for $200,000, and residents tended to know one another. They paid homeowners association fees for the playground and a soccer field. They held regular meetings and cookouts. They also had a homeowners-only Facebook page, where residents before the storm had offered to help one another run Walmart errands and find lost pets, and where instead in recent days one resident had posted aerial photos of storm damage taken from a drone, and where another had posted pictures of people from Lynnwood who had been rescued in boats.
"Long road to recovery here," another resident wrote, after the water had crested.
Now, that recovery was beginning all around, and at house 9906, a family was inside, using brooms to sweep the last inches of water out the front door. At house 9911, leather furniture was being dragged onto the sidewalk, still sopping wet. At house 9927, the owners carried out a warped closet door, a dresser, a lamp, three soaked couch cushions. And at house 9915, where several feet of water had entered the first floor, the owners, Jill and Greg Clausen, were both cleaning up their home and preparing to move to a temporary new one — a booking at the WoodSpring Suites, covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"What's the plan?" Greg asked.
"I was gonna call and see about the demo people," she said.
"I'll load up the truck," he said.
Residents said that almost all of the homes in Lynnwood, eventually, would be livable. Maybe the work would take weeks, or months. But there was one exception — the home that was closest to the bayou, the only home that was swallowed up to the roof, the home of the newest couple in the neighborhood. Now Angel Garzoria, 22, and Alexis Hernandez, 20, were parking their car and coming out to inspect the damage. They walked toward their house but couldn't go in all the way because of the water. There it was, 100 yards away. Some 1,700 square feet. Purchased in March. Built in four months. Lived in since July. And now, half-submerged.
To save for that home, he'd worked 70-hour weeks at Exxon. She'd worked 50-hour weeks as a medical tech treating people with kidney problems. They had just enough money for a 5 percent down payment, a $6,000 porch, a $1,500 65-inch television. They'd bought a refrigerator, a barbecue pit, a foam mattress. They'd spent a little extra for a larger lot, a play area for the kids they planned on having.
"We spent a lot," she said.
"Everything," he said.
"A nightmare," she said, and they'd left in such a hurry, even the most basic things — Garzoria's Exxon employee ID, for instance — were still in the home, underwater.
Soon, another car pulled up, this one driven by Garzoria's stepfather, who brought with him a plastic kayak. He put the kayak in at the edge of the water, and Garzoria climbed in. Together, they paddled past the portable toilets, past the lumber, toward house No. 7903. When they arrived, they were in waist-deep water. They grabbed clothing, the IDs, some documents, some shoes, stuffing it into plastic bags, and loading it back onto the boat. Thirty minutes later they were back on the dry part of the street, and Garzoria was showing Hernandez photos of the home's interior he'd snapped with his cellphone.
There was the ruined laptop, he said.
There was the ruined TV.
There was the refrigerator, tipped over.
There was the bed, torn apart by the currents.
"Oh my God," Hernandez said, and she covered her mouth.
"It smelled like gas inside," Garzoria said.
He shook his head.
"Oh my God," Hernandez said again. "Oh my God."
She sat down on a folding chair looking out onto what was left of the neighborhood. Their house would be torn down. Their savings were drained. They'd have to move in with her parents. Nothing was happening as planned, and drying in the sunshine before her was a final mortgage document, sent days earlier in the mail, one more thing soaked by the flood. Their first payment was due Oct. 1.