HOUSTON — They worked all night and all day in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers, pumping pools of filthy flood water from beneath the concrete heart of downtown even as clearing skies unmasked a broiling sun.
Banks, hospitals and office buildings remained dark and empty Monday, water sloshing in the deep underground complexes below. In the end, it was the basements that crippled this city of swamps, bayous and gulf storms.
"It's dark, gloomy, smelly," said George Ortiz, stomping up the stairs of a parking garage in rubber boots. "This is straight out of the movies."
Underground flooding killed at least one woman, forced the evacuation of 3,000 inmates from Harris County Jail, and trapped hospital patients in steamy, dark rooms when basement generators were flooded.
These were the latest penalties levied by Tropical Storm Allison, which pounded ashore last weekend and buried Houston in some of the worst flooding in recent memory. Two more bodies were found Monday afternoon on the banks of White Oak Bayou, bringing the death toll to at least 20.
Monday's worries drove home the depressing realization that the ravages of the flooding won't be repaired any time soon.
"We're talking about weeks and probably months," emergency management spokesman Artee Jones said. "What we're looking at is massive."
Roads and lawns had reemerged Monday. Evacuated families ventured homeward to find pets drowned, furniture destroyed, family albums spoiled. It was time to clean: Spray down floors with bleach, haul out sodden carpets and apply for federal relief money.
"We lost everything," said Karla Almendariz, 17, leaning against the wall of a south Houston shelter while younger brothers and sisters crouched at her feet. "The furniture, the bed. Everything. We're staying with my aunt, but we don't know what to do next."
Raging currents apparently battered down the wall of a deep parking garage beneath the civic center, allowing water from Buffalo Bayou to rush through the gap. The torrents spread to neighboring garages and created a subterranean pond beneath the city's theater district.
"Having a basement in Houston doesn't work. Surprise, surprise," said director James Lester of the Environmental Institute of Houston. "Why would you put a tunnel in downtown? So it can fill with water?"
The Alley Theater's renditions of works by Horton Foote and George Bernard Shaw were canceled, as was just about everything else in Houston. Costumes, scenery and rehearsal studios are all underground.
"As far as we know, it's completely underwater," theater spokeswoman Delicia Harvey said. "We haven't been able to go down there."
In crowded shelters, where victims stood in lines for sandwiches, diapers and old sneakers, tempers crackled in the afternoon heat.
"Get to the back of the line," a woman snapped to passersby, swiping at her forehead. "Wait your turn."
Automated teller machines were broken all over the city, and telephone service remained spotty. Workers cleared 4 feet of water from the Compaq Center.
At the Texas Medical Center, where some hospitals reported as much as 24 feet of water, pumps sucked away at the basements. Thousands of laboratory animals died, and untold amounts of research were destroyed.
In St. Luke's Hospital, fans fought the heat in darkened corridors--the air conditioning and most of the lights were still out. Volunteers used flashlights to deliver boxed lunches to bedridden patients.
"I mean, this is bad, this is really bad," said Connie Garcia, shaking her head. "We've never seen anything like this before. It's scary that this can happen."
On the outskirts of Houston, environmental officials investigated slick waters and an empty drum spotted floating on the surface of the city's ship channel, where petrochemical plants are clustered.