The burgundy carpet inside Dwight Dimery’s three-bedroom home in Nichols still oozes mucky water when you step on it.
Storm debris, ruined clothes and waterlogged furniture are strewn throughout the house, where floodwater recently reached as high as the countertops.
The mold left growing after Hurricane Matthew is strong enough to make your eyes water. And yet, the 58-year-old truck driver is here with a rake and a mop, hoping to clean out what he can – most of his belongings are headed to the landfill – while pondering his next move.
Dimery hopes the Federal Emergency Management Agency will come through with its maximum grant — $33,300 — though applicants historically get a fraction of that, if anything. But even that likely will not be enough to repair a ruined home with $79,000 left on its mortgage. “It’s going to be a right good financial hit.”
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Dimery could use a miracle.
The whole town of Nichols needs one, Mayor Lawson Battle says.
The tight-knit Marion County town of nearly 400 is marked by poverty and unemployment. Three out of every four residents are elderly or disabled, Battle said.
Around Nichols, the question lingers: What happens when a natural disaster strikes a town whose residents cannot write a check to repair their homes, and know taking out a loan – at any interest rate – is out of the question?
“This town didn’t have hardly a dime before this happened,” Battle said. “Now, it’s awful.”
‘Trust the Lord to go on’
Nichols was left underwater two weeks ago when the nearby Little Pee Dee and Lumber rivers rose to historic heights after Hurricane Matthew. The entire town evacuated, with many residents rescued by boat.
Floodwaters left 235 of the town’s 261 homes “severely damaged” or worse, said Battle, whose own home was flooded. About 300 cars were totaled by flooding.
By Tuesday, the waters had mostly receded, with brown water puddling in ditches and other low-lying spots. But Nichols still was reeling.
Just one of the town’s 22 businesses had reopened, and only a handful or two of residents had moved back into their homes. All six of the town’s churches remained closed.
Piles of sheet rock, insulation, tossed-out clothes, furniture and storm debris lined streets.
Some areas still were without power. A trailer outside the Nichols Library offered free showers to anyone who needed them, and volunteers inside the library gave away boxes of supplies – anything from bottled water to bleach to shovels – to residents who dropped by.
About 90 people still were living in a Red Cross shelter nearby. They have “no idea where they’re going to go, what they’re going to do, when they’re going to get to do it,” Battle said.
Most residents were nowhere to be found, having taken shelter with friends and family elsewhere. The front doors of homes and cars are swung wide open so they can dry out. Residents have no concern about looters stealing already ruined valuables.
But some residents were back at their homes Tuesday, ripping out flooring, stacking debris and trying to salvage what they could.
“I’m just going to try to reclaim what I can and trust the Lord to go on,” said 66-year-old Waldolph Garner, who lost four vehicles to the flooding and expects he will have to buy a new house.
Tuesday marked Day 5 of the cleanup process for Timmy Brown, whose home and auto shop were flooded. He has been paid $11,000 by his flood insurance policy but lost much more to the waters, including $20,000 worth of tools alone.
“Forty-eight years old, having to start over,” Brown said. “That’s not too much fun.”
‘Looking for those answers’
For many of the area’s poorest, the mention of possible FEMA assistance offers a ray of hope. But community leaders know the agency is no silver bullet.
Only a fraction of applicants will get help. That money is meant to help residents get back on their feet – not to rebuild lives, the relief agency has said.
Fewer than a fourth of Marion County’s applicants to FEMA have been approved for help.
So far, they have received nearly $3.5 million. While more than any other S.C. county has received, that shakes out to just $4,718 per recipient for the 740 households that have received federal aid.
“What good are they if they’re not going to come in and help these people?” said John Watson, a Nichols resident who spent five days after Hurricane Matthew on a boat rescuing neighbors from their homes.
Battle said his biggest fear is “not knowing how we’re going to fix this small town.” Battle has taped 22 brown slips of paper to his office wall, each naming an obstacle Nichols has left to overcome. “Restore power,” “mold remediation,” “condemn property” and “people living in their homes” are all there. Only one – “open post office – has a check mark over it.
“As big a miracle as this storm was, it’s going to take an even bigger miracle to fix this, to make Nichols back whole again, if it will ever be back whole,” Battle said. “We don’t have the financial means to help these people. It’s all going to have to come from outside sources.”
Battle said he does not know what those sources are.
The state-backed One SC Flood Fund eventually could help some residents rebuild. And the town has set up an account for donations at Anderson Brothers Bank.
‘I’m still looking for those answers,” Battle said.
How to help: Checks to help the town of Nichols start recovering from Hurricane Matthew can be made out to the Town of Nichols Disaster Relief Fund at Anderson Brothers Bank, 101 N. Main St., Mullins, SC, 29574.
Questions? Call Nichols Town Hall at (843) 430-1483
One SC Fund
Donations also can be sent to the One SC Fund, used to support nonprofit organizations providing relief and recovery assistance to disaster victims. Donations can be made online or via the mail to: Central Carolina Community Foundation-One SC, 2711 Middleburg Drive, Suite 213, Columbia, SC 29204. Checks should be made payable to Central Carolina Community Foundation-OneSC.