HOUSTON (Reuters) - The smell hit Martha Alexander West as she opened the door of her home on Wednesday, returning to see what damage Hurricane Harvey had done.
“Oooh, we can’t stay in here,” she said eying wet muck on the floor, her bedroom covered in water and walls marred by a grimy waterline more than a foot (30 cm) off the floor.
Furniture, a gun case and clothes had been piled on higher surfaces but the water had reached them all the same. It will all have to be thrown away, West said.
“You can’t try to dry stuff out because it still has that smell,” said West, 62.
Harvey is edging away from Houston, and a few areas are now dry enough for evacuees to return but they face a long process of rebuilding.
The 9100 block of Oak Knoll Lane in northeastern Houston is a diverse community that faced a common shock on Wednesday as many were returning with their families. Black, Latino and white neighbors on the tight-knit street had abandoned their homes over the weekend.
At their highest, flood waters had covered the mailboxes outside most homes on the street, and they had seeped under doors, buckling floors and leaving behind mud and debris.
Across the street from West, the flowers from Glenda Butler’s mother’s funeral were flattened behind her house.
Like many on the block, Butler said she was relieved that the damage was not worse, even as she and her husband, James Smith, 62, said they would rip up floors and walls, and throw away most of their possessions.
Many have lived on Oak Knoll Lane for decades and remember 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison, which sent flood waters another couple of feet higher (60 cm) than Harvey.
“Start over, day by day. That’s the plan,” said Butler, 50, a medical screening technician who hopes to live with friends and relatives during the rebuilding.
“I was expecting a lot worse,” said Benjamin Quezada, 34, who reconstructs houses for a living. By midmorning he had already ripped open his walls, cutting off the bottom two feet (60 cm) of sheetrock, while his family piled furniture by the curb.
Quezada said his house was worth between $45,000 and $50,000, and he guessed it will cost $20,000 to $25,000 to repair. He said he had not yet filed a claim with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which offers aid.
“Whatever they help me out with, it is a blessing,” he said, calling the storm God’s will. “He gives and He takes, bless His name,” Quezada said.
Many residents did not have flood insurance and they are not sure how they will pay for rebuilding, even with government help.
Valerie Stephens, 32, lives with her 91-year-old grandmother, who moved into the house when the neighborhood was built in the 1950s. They did not have time to take much with them when they left, and like many neighbors, they did not have flood insurance.
She said the water came so fast they had not time to try to save anything.
“Before we could get everything picked up, it was like nine inches (23 cm) deep, and that was in 30 minutes,” she said. “I’ll probably be living with sheetrock and bare floor for a while.”
As she was talking, a neighbor drove by and shouted: “You OK?”
“We’re good,” Stephens replied.
The block has some older residents who will look to friends and family for help.
Nathaniel Phillips, 67, was evacuated by a neighbor in a front-end load tractor. He spent most of the following days at the shelter set up at the city’s convention center.
Phillips hopes that a nearby church will help him rebuild, but he regrets the loss of furniture that he bought with his wife, who died a few years ago.
“It’s gone. Too old to start over. Got to start over,” he said.
Reporting By Peter Henderson; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler