For the first time, a handful of residents in Pinewood Estates were allowed to return to their homes Tuesday. Those who came back saw the damage caused by five to six feet of water.

“Everybody don’t know what you’re gonna walk into,” Jeremy Dale said. Dale was one of the homeowners who chose to return. His son and a friend from Sour Lake helped him sort through the mess and determine what could be saved.

“My wife’s not here. I finally got them out of here, and I really wasn’t ready for her to see it yet,” Dale explained, “and I sure don’t want my daughter here.”

Dale and his family rushed out of their house when the water came in. They started packing his truck when flooding reached their driveway; by the time they grabbed the essentials, it was inside the home and up to their ankles.

He sent his wife and daughter on to Mississippi, while he and his son remained with his father in Lumberton.

Dale actually went back to his house on Saturday, because in the frenzy to evacuate, the family’s two cats refused to leave. But that day was his daughter’s birthday, and she desperately missed her favorite cat.

“She’d been so upset, and any father knows what I’m feeling,” Dale said. “Every time I think about that cat, I just want to cry, because you always want to do what you can for your daughter.”

When he drove as close as the water would allow, he came upon a water rescue task force from the Tampa Bay, Florida, area. He explained to one of the firefighters that all he wanted was to retrieve the cats for his daughter’s birthday. “And I said, ‘I’m just trying to get that cat.’ And he said, ‘I’m going to make that birthday wish come true. Get in the boat.’”

“We pulled the boat up to my house,” Dale continued. “When I went up to her and I petted her, the look was like, what took you so long?

“And when we got that boat all the way back to the trucks, those guys all—we FaceTimed her—and they all told her happy birthday. And then I turned my camera—my phone—to the cage, and the cat started meowing. And my daughter just started saying, ‘my B! My B! My B!’ And she was jumping up and down, and then she put her head down and started crying. I started crying.”

Dale said Tuesday he wished he could thank the rescuers, who came from Tampa Fire Rescue, St. Petersburg Fire Rescue, and Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. “Because they took the grimmest situation and put something positive in it,” Dale explained. “Because I’ve lost everything. I’ve got nothing. But if I can make my daughter happy, that means so much to me. And I don’t think there’s a parent out there who wouldn’t agree with me.

“They told me, ‘at least something good came out of today.’”

Dale was emotional again Tuesday, seeing what the water left behind. There was lots of damaged furniture, trash everywhere, and a yellow line along the wall in case he needed a reminder about what caused it.

“There’s not much salvageable,” he said after a brief walkthrough. “I mean, you can see, we got, my mounts were up high and a few things that are important to me. But (my wife is) worried about some pictures that are hanging on the walls, so we’re in there trying to save what we can.”

He said initially planned to grab clothes, but decided to pull what he could while he could. The rest he will think about another day.

“I don’t even know what it’ll cost to do this,” he said about repairing the home. “I don’t, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Much of Pinewood Estates is still underwater, and members of the National Guard asked all residents to leave by 8:00 p.m. But the people who came back and the people who cannot all know that their neighborhood will not feel like home again for a long time.

“I know I don’t sleep at night,” Dale said. “I’m not worried about work at the moment, I’m just worried about this. But the uncertainty of not knowing where you’re going to put your children to sleep at night, man, it just as a parent, it’s just horrible. I don’t wish that on nobody.”

In case you're wondering, both cats are okay.