Two decades. That’s how long the Gomez family spent fixing up their Talton Street house just the way they liked it.
The privacy gate, the garden benches, the treadmill in the back room. The flat-screen TV on the living room wall, the blue pictures of fish in the bathroom, the brand new cream-colored dining room chairs.
On Thursday, Maria and Juan Gomez cried as they surveyed the home that Harvey stole into, leaving mud, upturned furniture, water-logged cabinets and even a few fish in its wake.
“Twenty-three years,” Juan Gomez said, his throat tightening with emotion. “You’re working for nothing, working for nothing.”
Scenes like this played out all along Talton Street in Northeast Houston.
As residents of storm-weary Harris County begin returning to their homes, the quiet street is emblematic of what neighborhoods across the region will likely experience in days and weeks to come. Although some had flood insurance, other disaster victims said they did not and will likely spend years trying to recover physically, mentally and financially.
The Thursday homecomings for some in Houston came on a day that brought continued heartache for others. Eighteen Harris County deaths, including a man who died of natural causes on a charter bus, have been confirmed as flood-related by the Harris County Forensic Sciences Institute. An institute spokeswoman, Tricia Bentley, said Thursday that an additional 10 bodies awaiting autopsy were likely to be classified as flood-related deaths.
Houston officials started block-by-block searches of tens of thousands of homes — officials estimate 37,000 have been damaged and 7,000 destroyed statewide — for anyone who might still be in need.
Houston school leaders announced that classes will start on Sept. 11, two weeks late, because of Harvey, and Gov. Greg Abbott declared Sunday a day of prayer for the state.
President Donald Trump might visit the Houston area Saturday, a White House spokeswoman said.
Elsewhere, the loss of power at a chemical plant set off explosions that prompted a public health warning. The blasts at the Arkema Inc. plant northeast of Houston also ignited a 30- to 40-foot flame and sent up a plume of acrid smoke that the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency initially described as “incredibly dangerous.”
FEMA later backed away from that statement, saying that Administrator Brock Long spoke out of an abundance of caution. An Environmental Protection Agency analysis of the smoke showed that it posed no immediate threat to public health, the agency said.
Harvey’s five straight days of rain totaled close to 52 inches, the heaviest tropical downpour ever recorded in the continental U.S.
All along Talton Street on Thursday afternoon, people had begun taking stock of the damage. Wet chairs, tables, children’s toys, broken pieces of wood and chunks of plasterboard lined curbs.
Bernadette Laws, a clerk at the Harris County tax office, has lost her home on Talton twice to flooding. Allison was the last time in 2001.
But Thursday, she was optimistic and thankful.
Two sisters and two brothers showed up to help her clean. Members of her church, St. John’s Methodist, called to check on her.
Outside her house was a growing pile of cherished belongings that had become a heap of trash.
“To be going through all my things today just means that nothing is permanent,” Laws said. “Nothing lasts forever. So things we don’t have control over, we accept.”
Juan and Maria Gomez, along with their son, had evacuated to a local church on Saturday. The water was already high, up to their knees, when they left with their German shepherds, Cherry and Chapo. After a few nights at the George R. Brown Convention Center, they returned home.
The water had reached at least 4½ feet high inside, submerging their clothes, furniture, photos and other belongings. Mud coated everything. Their son’s bed was partially upturned against the wall and their furniture had floated to new spots. The pinto beans abandoned in a pot in the kitchen had molded. They found small fish on their living room floor.
Maria Gomez wept as she took a break from sweeping water out of the three-bedroom ranch house. Juan Gomez wiped his eyes, looking at the piles of filthy lamps, couches and coffee tables piled under their carport.
“Yesterday, I cried and cried,” Maria Gomez said. “Years we worked for this.”
Juan Gomez, a truck driver, had been looking for work before the storm hit. His wife is a supervisor for a store at William P. Hobby Airport. They have no homeowners insurance.
By early afternoon, cousins started showing up with food — pupusas, tamales, rotisserie chicken — and to help clean up. Someone brought ice and beer. A neighbor came to trade stories.
Juan Gomez planned to sleep in his truck that night, as he had the night before. Looters were breaking into empty houses to steal what they could, Maria Gomez said, and they want to keep their home safe while they salvage what they can.
On Thursday, their future remained a big question mark.
“Maybe leave it, maybe sell it,” Juan Gomez said, shaking his head as he surveyed his house. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Staff writer W. Gardner Selby contributed to this report.