Hurricane Harvey victims who escaped rising floodwaters are now returning home to examine the destruction.
In the week since Harvey made landfall, thousands of residents in Texas and Louisiana found refuge in shelters across the states. Floodwaters overtook entire neighborhoods, damaging at least 49,000 homes in Texas, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. In all, some 785,000 people were part of mandatory evacuations in Texas and Lousiana, and more than 200,000 homes are still without power. Officials are now allowing a portion of evacuees to return to their properties, and the process of rebuilding their homes, and their lives, begins.
“It’s like putting all your belongings in a washing machine, and shaking it up,” Larry Kemp, 65, tells PEOPLE as he dismantled the drywall in his ruined home. “It’s sickening.”
Kemp’s home in Conroe, 30 miles from Houston, was flooded by five-foot-high waters from a nearby lake. He and his wife left to stay with friends on Saturday, August 26, but were able to return briefly the next morning to retrieve their most sentimental possessions before the floods engulfed their home. They returned early morning on Tuesday, just after the water receded.
“All your life is right there,” Kemp says. “Everything you ever worked for and saved is gone—it’s devastating. Until you walk into your house and see all the mud and all your furniture just tossed around, you just don’t know. There was nothing in its place.”
The couple is living in an RV as they tear apart their home piece-by-piece in order to rebuild it. Despite the destruction, Kemp says he and his wife plan to stay in Conroe.
“I can tell you, from this point, we’re looking at the positive side of it, and trying to put it behind us,” he says.
Estimates place Harvey’s total damage to public property at $96.7 million so far. Some homes won’t be salvageable, and many evacuees will have to remain in shelters or with friends and family for the long-term.
“This has been too much for me. To be honest, I don’t know if I’m going to be here long,” Bill Wolfe, a Houston resident who returned to a home still waist-deep in water, told CNN. “Surreal is probably the understatement of the century here.”
For some, the prospect of facing a storm like Harvey again will be enough to warrant a move elsewhere.
“I just don’t know if I can do this again,” Cathy Savage, who survived the catastrophe of Hurricane Ike in 2008, told NBC News. “Maybe this is it. Maybe it’s time to go.”
The process of sorting through possessions will prove difficult for many returning residents.
“I don’t think I’m sad,” Ryan Short, 34, told CNN as he walked through the knee-high water of his Houston apartment. “I wanna just move on already.”
Houston-area pastor, Aric Harding, returned to his damaged home on August 30, four days after he and his family escaped in a canoe. “I think it’s all finally sinking in a little. What we used to have going as a city is gone,” he wrote in a post on his Instagram account. “I really think God is going to do something completely new here.”
A video of Harding playing a haunting melody on a piano in his home, as floodwater enveloped his feet, went viral on social media.
I went back to our street today because as you guys have probably seen the water has come back with a vengeance. I hope this was its high point. I grabbed the kids’ favorite stuffed animals that we had left behind and a couple of games to keep the kids occupied. I think it’s all finally sinking in a little. What we used to have going as a city is gone. I really think God is going to do something completely new here. I am excited to see the new beauty in the suffering. Our pastor @bruce_wesley reminded us of that truth from Romans 8 this morning on his Facebook Live broadcast. “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:18-28 ESV
Jerry Shannon—who spoke to NBC News when he returned to his residence in Meyerland on August 31—searched through debris for any retrievable family photos and keepsakes with his wife.
“Forty years of our lives, tossed away,” Shannon said. “It sucks, but what do you do? You clean up and you move forward.”
According to the National Hurricane Survival Initiative, homeowners returning to their dried out neighborhood should take precautions in the reshaped environment. Precautions include watching for downed power lines, being aware of snakes and other animals that might have escaped to higher ground, gas leaks, and sewer and water line damage. Homeowners should also document any damage for their insurance claim.
And yet, with thousands still in the process of recovering from the destruction, the nation may have to brace itself once again: Hurricane Irma is growing over the Atlantic Ocean, and could potentially hit the U.S. next week.