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Two hurricanes ripped into this little SC town. Has it recovered?

Hurricane Matthew flood damage may be death knell for Nichols, SC

Residents of the small Pee Dee town of Nichols are trying to decide whether their town should be rebuilt or abandoned. Nichols was devastated by Hurricane Matthew. Feelings are raw in a town where the devastation lingers and financial help is not
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Residents of the small Pee Dee town of Nichols are trying to decide whether their town should be rebuilt or abandoned. Nichols was devastated by Hurricane Matthew. Feelings are raw in a town where the devastation lingers and financial help is not

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Lawson Battle works fast, but his town’s comeback from Hurricane Florence is painfully slow.

Totally submerged by flooding after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and then again in September by Florence, the small Pee Dee town of Nichols faces a long rebuild.

“It’s been nonstop,” Battle, mayor of the community of 400, said of the recovery effort. “We’re doing everything we can, shaking every tree, trying to get these people help.”

Just 30 of the town’s 260 families are back in their homes after evacuating, Battle estimates. About 100 of those households did not return after Matthew.

Many families face high — if not insurmountable — rebuilding costs, in part because of federal rules that require significantly damaged homes to be lifted high above the ground before they are rebuilt. That’s an expensive demand in a town where three in four residents is elderly or disabled.

“People don’t have the money to elevate,” said Battle, who returned to his home last month after two months at his father’s house in Horry County. “They don’t even have the money to come back.”

Battle and the town’s staff are working tirelessly out of a gutted town hall. They coordinate with families about their plans, if any, to return; search for grants and donations that could help fund the rebuilding effort; and work with state and federal disaster officials to overcome red tape.

There is plenty to do, especially as Battle tries to catch his propane business up after losing weeks of work to the flood.

“Usually, your phone is ringing from about 6, 7 a.m. in the morning until you fall asleep and don’t hear it at night,” Battle said. “But everybody else is doing the same thing, and I’m not complaining. There’s no ‘I’ in team, and I’ve got one hell of staff.”

The silver lining is that Nichols has been here, done that.

“Not to say that we know what we’re doing, but we’ve done it once before,” Battle said. “I don’t think you ever know what you’re doing.”

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Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.
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