GALVESTON, Texas – Entire subdivisions obliterated. Oil and chemical slicks in the surf where vacationers once frolicked. Longhorn cattle roaming desolate streets. But, most stunning of all, no more deaths.
Grim scenes greeted rescuers Monday as they penetrated the areas hardest-hit by Hurricane Ike, two days after it thrashed the Texas Gulf Coast and left thousands homeless.
The Bolivar Peninsula and the west end of Galveston Island saw some of the heaviest damage from the storm and took the longest to reach as flooded roads, high winds and washed-out bridges blocked search-and-rescue teams. But when help finally arrived to the last unexplored, Ike-ravaged area, there were few people around; they had either gotten out ahead of the storm or escaped afterward.
What remained of the peninsula, a vibrant beach resort of 30,000 residents during the peak season, was a 27-mile wasteland. Ike's storm surge rolled over the skinny spit of land separating the Gulf of Mexico from Galveston Bay and swept away everything in its path.
The water's retreat Monday revealed an apocalyptic scene.
From the air, all that was left on streets once lined with houses were twisted black stilts reaching up from the sandy soil. In other places, concrete slabs were wiped clean by the surge.
Even the helicopters ferrying out survivors had difficulty finding somewhere to land amid the debris.
Rescuers who did make it to the peninsula town of Gilchrist visited the few houses left standing to check for survivors and came back describing a scene of total destruction.
"They had a lot of devastation over there," said Chuck Jones, who led a task force that landed on the peninsula east of Galveston. "It took a direct hit."
One man who collects exotic animals was holed up in a Baptist church with his pet lion.
"We're not going in there," Jones said. "We know where he (the lion) is on the food chain."
As of Monday, no deaths had been reported on the Bolivar Peninsula, which was remarkable given the scope of the destruction. Five deaths were reported in Galveston.
Mary Maxymillian rode out the storm with seven friends in a brick house on High Island, a bit of elevated land in the middle of the peninsula that stayed high and dry. She wants to stay, but the group was running low on fuel for the generators after siphoning some from a boat to keep them going.
"The general consensus is we want relief, we want help," Maxymillian said. "I want to stay, and at the same time I'm scared."
But she worries that if she leaves now, officials won't let her come back for months.
That's exactly the message authorities were giving residents of Galveston.
"Galveston can no longer safely accommodate its population," said city manager Steve LeBlanc, who predicted it would take "days, weeks and months" to get the island cleaned up.
When authorities finally reached the island's hard-hit west end, it was a ghost town. About 20 cattle roamed the abandoned streets, sunning themselves in front of an empty, storm-battered hotel called Escapes!
Gone were the normal beachtown noises of tourists and traffic. The silence was broken only by the rustling of the wind, the cry of gulls and the occasional thump of helicopter rotors. The air was filled with the smell of smoldering wood from fires that have burned since the hurricane.
In one neighborhood called Spanish Grant Beachside, one- and two-story houses erected on cement pilings with garages beneath were pounded to rubble by waves and wind.
Other homes survived with only a few shingles lost.
Deputy City Manager Brandon Wade was one of those whose westend home made it through the storm relatively unscathed. Many of his neighbors were not so fortunate.
"It will take years for the island to totally recover from this," Wade said.
All that was left of one house was a single room balancing precariously on a piling with an air conditioning unit still hanging in its wall mount. Another house was ripped from its pilings, and dumped near the main intersection of Spanish Grant Beachside. A kitchen wall was torn away, and plates and bowls still sat neatly stacked in a cabinet.
Galveston officials said Monday they had examined 90 percent of the homes in the city of 57,000 in their search for survivors. They still had no estimate on the total number of homes damaged or destroyed.
The city's waterfront, normally dotted with tourists at this time of year, was transformed into mountains of splintered wood and other debris deposited there by the storm-churned gulf. Officials warned people to stay off the beaches and out of the water after spotting what appeared to be floating oil or chemical slicks offshore.
Up the coast, other residents came home to their own scenes of despair.
Lori Cooper, who rode the storm with her 16- and 8-year-old sons at a relative's house, returned Monday to find that Ike's surge had swept through the house, washing away many of the family's belongings and depositing the pool table in the backyard.
They had no flood insurance because their home on the outskirts of Bridge City supposedly wasn't in a flood zone.
Although the water had receded, the floors, walls and furniture were coated with a foul mixture of mud and refinery oil.
She made the grim return without her sons.
"I didn't want them to see this," said Cooper, 36. "I'm homeless. I have nothing."