ADAMS CREEK, N.C. - People in this picturesque rural region are no strangers to floods, living as they do on the Neuse, a tidal river that flows into normally placid waters guarded by the sandy Outer Banks. But most had never seen a storm surge like the wall of water propelled by the swirling, howling winds of Hurricane Isabel.
The water receded yesterday, and sparkling blue skies replaced the lowering clouds, to reveal a scene of desolation.
Refrigerators, chairs, home heating units, an entire deck, a laundry basket, shoes strewn about yards and streets. A house missing most of its back wall. A roof lying on the lawn. Trailers lifted off their foundations and moved 20 feet or reduced to a pile of plywood.
"I saw my porch fly off the house. I watched the wall of my house fly off," said a still shocked Kirk Mical, a commercial and charter boat fisherman whose family swam to safety Thursday, returning home later to find a foot of standing water in the house.
At the cemetery adjoining St. Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, floodwaters even forced open a grave and sent a white fiberglass coffin floating 25 yards into the woods.
Before Isabel, Mical and his wife, Jeanette, had simply hunkered down when hurricanes roared past. This time, they and their 13-year-old daughter, Hannah, intended to do the same.
They were relaxing in their riverfront living room, watching the storm blow by, talking about the great fishing in store in its aftermath.
Then, Isabel started ripping their house apart and surging water surrounded them. Hannah jumped on her father's back as he and his wife swam to a boat atop a trailer that moments before had been on dry land.
The family clambered aboard, followed by their dog, Lucky, and Mical managed to start the motor, allowing the family to escape the storm's impact.
When they came home, personal items were floating about, among them a "baby's first year" photo album. Only the cover had survived the storm.
"All the pictures were gone. That's when everybody kind of started crying," Kirk Mical said as he walked through his house, strewn with dirt, tree debris and river water. "Stuff from other people's houses was in here, other people's pictures."
In the master bedroom, an entire cabinet full of summer clothes had been ripped from the wall and had floated away.
Still, his spirits were remarkably upbeat.
"It's not like we're material people," he said. Even with the loss of photographs, he said, "It's not like we're going to miss anything because we still have everybody here."
But some things were out of place, such as the coffin of Willie Frazier, a logger and fisherman who died in 2000. A group of men hauled the coffin out of the woods and put it back into its brick-walled grave.
"It just shocked me," said Joseph Jones, a brick mason who had worked with Frazier.
The Baptist church's interior was also soaked, including the carpet, organ and the pews.
Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who toured parts of Adams Creek yesterday, was stunned by the scene in the tiny town. "It looked like a war zone," she said.
In a nearby neighborhood, where small one-story homes share the landscape with fields of soybeans and corn, Vincent Hill returned to soaked carpets and furniture and belongings scattered about in unlikely places. A bag of Avon products belonging to his wife, Vanessa, had floated down the hall from the bedroom and landed in the kitchen. Clothing was ruined.
Hill, 38, a brick mason, was born and raised in this house until he was 5. That year, his mother was murdered and he was sent to live with an aunt in New Jersey, but he returned here after he married and has been remodeling it since - he had just put in a new foundation and new flooring in the kitchen.
"This is the only thing I remember from my mother," he said. "All that work I've done is gone. I've got to start all over again."
Hill grew up with floods, and has never fled them before, but he had a bad feeling about this storm, so he moved his family to a shelter Wednesday.
But about 11:30 a.m. Thursday, as the eye approached, he learned that his father had not removed his 11 dogs, 10 of which are hounds he uses for deer hunting. So he went back to the house - only to find 6 feet of water lapping at his front door.
He and a neighbor made five trips from the backyard kennel to his truck, swimming with the dogs, and managed to get out.
"That's the highest I've seen the water in 38 years," he said. "Once I came back here I realized I made a mistake."
Down the street, Hill's cousin Emma Everette and her husband, Milton, also got a rude welcome when they returned home yesterday: drenched carpets and upholstery and a living room floor that buckled when they walked on it, apparently because the rushing water had shifted the cinderblocks beneath.
The Everettes, who have lived in the house since they were married 37 years ago, have no insurance. In the past, Milton, 65 has fixed flood damage himself, but now he has heart problems and high blood pressure and will have to pay someone to do it.
"Oh no, no, no," Emma recalled thinking when she saw her soaked pillows and blankets. But the house was still standing, and for that, she said, "I feel blessed."