LUMBERTON, N.C. (AP) — Elmer McDonald rolled up his blue jeans and sloshed into the ankle-deep floodwater on his street. The cool water was the color of strong tea.
In his left hand, he carried keys to his trailer. The 36-year-old father of four hoped to find out exactly what Hurricane Matthew had left behind.
McDonald — known as Moe to his friends in Lumberton — had tried to return Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but each day, the current was too strong, the water too deep. Maybe Thursday would be the day he finally got inside. The water on the street had receded and now covered only about a city block.
The sky was bright blue, the sun not too warm. It would have been a perfect fall day if folks here weren’t dealing with the worst natural disaster to hit this city in a generation.
McDonald was one of thousands who evacuated. About 1,200 people had to be rescued by boat or plucked from their roofs by helicopters. Two of North Carolina’s 22 fatalities occurred in Robeson County, where Lumberton is the seat.
People throughout the flood zone are anxious to get back to their homes to see what is salvageable. Many, like McDonald, do not have flood insurance.
With an Associated Press reporter and photographer in tow, McDonald set out. He walked with rhythmic splashes up the road’s double yellow line and talked of his life — how he was from Baltimore, how he’d once been shot in the foot and been homeless.
Maybe that’s why he wasn’t scared when the water deepened, first to his calves, then his knees, then his hips.
“I’ve been through a lot, a lot of stuff. This right here ain’t bothering me.”
A soggy sofa sat half submerged, making one wonder what else was in the water.
“Everything. All kinds of stuff. Snakes, water moccasins, maybe a gator. Trash, debris. There’s probably all type of metal and glass in here,” he said.
McDonald’s kids range from 16 months to 17 years old. None was home at the time of the storm. Before the rain, the little ones went to stay with their grandma, who has water and power.
He and his wife didn’t leave until the waters rose. They hastily piled everything they could grab onto tables and counters, then packed a few items and fled. McDonald returned to try to get paperwork out of a car in his backyard, but the water was too high. He helped neighbors move their cars to higher ground.
What he wasn’t able to do: grab his tools.
“I’m a workin’ man,” he said. “I got my own construction company, roofing, but it don’t look so good now because all my tools probably gone up the river.”
All of the homes on the street were encircled by brown water. One family had to leave dogs behind.
“‘Man, the water’s coming up, y’all gotta get outta here,’ I told that guy,” he said, pointing to a neighbor’s home where a fluffy dog barked. McDonald said the dog had been on the hill in back of the property, but he guessed it somehow swam to the porch. That neighbor was going to try to get to his home later Thursday, he added.
“I just hope that people don’t move, that everybody can save their houses,” he murmured.
At McDonald’s property line, there was a dip in the earth and his feet hit rocks.
“The last time I come through here it was this deep,” he said, motioning with his hand at the top of his stomach. The water was now knee-deep.
As he approached his home, his gait slowed. The water rippled through the yard.
“It’s about what I expected it was going to be like,” he said. The grass of his front lawn felt slimy and soft beneath his feet.
The little brown and white home was surrounded by water. Surely it too would be inundated. How could it not?
Bracing his hands on the wooden stair rail leading to the front door, McDonald stepped gingerly. The wood had grown slick in a matter of days.
“I had a boat tied here and got three trash bags of clothes when I made this crayon mark,” on the second step, he said.
He stuck the key in the door and looked down. The beige carpet was slightly damp, not sopping wet.
Everything else was dry.
His eyes went wide as he scanned the dark living room. “Oh my goodness,” he said. “It’s amazing. It’s amazing. I thought it was all going to be gone. It’s a blessing. That’s what it is.”
Slowly, he walked into the kitchen, which smelled like rotting food. The floor was dry. He opened the back door, and the covered wooden porch was dry, too. The remnants of the final grilled dinner he had with his wife were still in a pan.
The car out back was mostly submerged, as was his shed with the tools. But almost everything else was unscathed.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to see this when I came home. I thought everything was going to be gone. I think it’s still livable. I hope so.”
He knows he won the equivalent of a coin toss in the disaster game. Some of his neighbors and many fellow Lumberton residents will not be so fortunate.
It’s unclear if there will be hidden, lingering problems. Are the floorboards under the carpet all right? Is the foundation solid? And what of his tools? Will he be able to return to work soon?
For people like McDonald who live mostly paycheck-to-paycheck, the aftermath of a storm can grind on for weeks and be financially devastating.
But for now, he’s celebrating his good luck. As he walked through his trailer, he showed a little grin and grabbed a bottle so he could wade to the neighbor’s and give the thirsty barking dog some water.
“And I always complained about how small it was,” he said. “I won’t ever do that again. I’ll never complain again.”
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush .