Annetta Adams looks down from her second-floor stoop onto the destruction below. It looks as though the contents of her home on the Texas coast were churned by a giant washing machine. 

“It’s pretty heartbreaking to come home and find this,” she says, hands clasped, lips pursed.

Her family has lived in Port Aransas for five generations. Almost 150 years in this small community on Mustang Island, and they’ve never seen anything like this. She has lived through three hurricanes and Harvey, she says, has been the worst.

She points to a spot on the first floor wall where the water hit its high point.

“Up to my neck,” she says. She’s five feet nine inches tall. Her massive freezer floated through the water like a bathtub toy.

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Swaths of homes have been reduced to carpets of wood. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

“When you walk in and look at it, it was shocking, like how did that happen? The power of water is pretty amazing.”

Port Aransas, nearly 280 kilometres southeast of San Antonio, is near the spot Harvey made landfall as a hurricane late on Aug. 25.

Port Aransas police say eight in 10 homes and businesses on the island were damaged or destroyed. 

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It may take weeks for these crews to restore electricity. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Driving around the island of 3,500 residents, you get a true sense of the destruction.

On one block, a swath of homes has been reduced to a carpet of wood. The island is lined with downed poles. Workers on so-called “swamp machines” try to raise them one by one.

Weeks of work

They have weeks of work ahead of them to get all the power back. The sides of buildings are peeling off. Mobile homes have been disembowelled, their contents spilling into piles on the ground.

Some buildings look as though they’ve been squashed. A metal roof lies on the ground, folded like a napkin. 

A church looks untouched until you walk inside. Sunlight pours through a giant hole in the roof. The only congregants here: a pile of stuffed animals.

Port Aransas Church

This Port Aransas church may look intact from the outside, but inside tells a different story. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Down the street, a man tries to figure out how his trailer took off without him.

With “130-mile-an-hour winds, things are going to fly,” he says. “Unfortunately.”

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David Iacono ascends the pile in search of anything that can still be saved, like his flag. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

David Iacono squelches through the mud towards what can only be described as a huge mound of everything: twisted metal, a couch, seaweed, lumber, a boat pontoon.

But luckily he’s been prepared for the tangle in front of him, the mound that was his home.

“Good friends of ours took pictures, so we knew what we were going to see when we got here today,” Iacono says. He heaves a two-by-four that flies over the mess to join a growing pile.

This scene of discovery — and despair — is happening across the island. Only recently, authorities reopened the bridges and let people back in.

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George Mills, 77, built this house in 1954. Now he has to walk away. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Adams’s neighbour across the street, 77-year-old George Mills, surveyed the damage with a rueful smile.

He built his house in 1954. But the hurricane actually moved it more than half a metre sideways. Cactus, seaweed and grass are spilling out of his front door.

The deck simply floated off.

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Grass, seaweed and a cactus spill forth from this home. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

“We had it in the family all that time,” he says, hands on his hips. “Got to move on.”

Businesspeople who boarded up shops hoping that might prevent the damage discovered their measures did little to stop the floodwaters.

One owner is removing merchandise from his store, trashed by the flood. Only the purses that were hung up high survived.

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Boarding up windows did little to stop the flood for many businesses. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

You need a mask and plenty of courage to enter David Bendett’s coffee shop.

“There’s so much debris and mould and there could be snakes in there,” he says. “We lost everything. The floodwater came in about 11 feet.”

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After almost 3.5 meters of water sloshed into this business, recovery workers have to brave not just mould but possibly snakes. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Some here don’t even know that U.S. President Donald Trump visited neighbouring Corpus Christi on Tuesday, offering support.

But that city was largely untouched by the hurricane. Trump didn’t tour any hard-hit areas, he didn’t speak with any of Harvey’s victims, who say they need more than a show of support.

Jack Smythe, who lives across the lane from Adams, thought his house was safe. Turns out the pictures neighbours took were the remaining good side of his house.

Jack Smythe

Jack Smythe is preparing to leave his home before the other half falls apart, too. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The other side?

It’s “just cracked, all the pieces like it’s getting ready to split and open up,” Smythe says.

Looking for relief

He called the Federal Emergency Management Agency for relief right away. But its response shocked him.

“They denied my claim,” Smythe says.

So now he’s packing up. If Harvey returns, it could come to claim the other half of his house. Still, he manages to laugh.

“Why would you wallow in sorrow? You’ve got to be happy, otherwise you’ll end up dying in self-pity,” he says. “What can we do?”

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Hundreds of homes in Port Aransas are a total loss. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Adams says she couldn’t even get through to FEMA on the phone. Still, she says, she feels like she’s been lucky.

“We knew we had something to come back to.”

Back at that pile of rubble, Iacono, too, is trying to find a bright side.

“We have insurance, fortunately,” he says. “Lots of people didn’t.”

The only thing that he’s discovered intact so far is his American flag.

“Gotta protect the flag.”

He peels off some seaweed, ascends the pile of rubble and disappears from view.