Politics & Government

Hurricane-ravaged Nichols pleads for state aid

Former House member Jim Battle explains why Nichols needs flood recovery aid from the state

Former House member Jim Battle explains why Nichols needs flood recovery aid from the state.
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Former House member Jim Battle explains why Nichols needs flood recovery aid from the state.

More than four out of every five homes in Nichols remain vacant five months after Hurricane Matthew’s historic flooding submerged the rural Marion County town.

Two of the tight-knit community’s six churches remain closed. So, too, 15 of its 22 businesses.

“The library is not open. The fire department is hardly there. The police department – everybody is in shock,” said Jim Battle, a Nichols resident and former S.C. House member who pleaded the town’s case Thursday to S.C. state senators.

An aerial tour shows flooding in Nichols, SC and all down the Great Pee Dee River and the Little Pee Dee River.

Battle asked a Senate panel to support a proposal to spend $700,000 on Nichols’ recovery. The money would help the town of nearly 400 repair its city-owned buildings and replace waterlogged vehicles and equipment needed to provide essential government services.

Without the state’s help, Nichols could disappear, its representatives told senators, repeating concerns, which have lingered since the floodwaters subsided, that the town’s very existence is threatened.

“I’ve never seen anything like Nichols. It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” said Roland Windham, a former Charleston County and Spartanburg County administrator hired with grant money to help run Nichols’ recovery. “The road forward is going to be tremendously hard, to get these people back in their houses.

“If the committee can see its way to recommend this money, I think it will be a great jump-start to get us going in the direction we need to. ... Otherwise, Nichols will not survive.”

‘The money is gone’

Before the storm, Nichols had four police officers driving four patrol cars. Now, it has two officers in one car – the other three cars were ruined by the storm.

Nichols’ fire department and its two fire engines also were wrecked by flooding. Now, volunteers are working with an old truck donated from Delaware.

About 216 of the town’s 261 homes remain vacant. Federal officials say 235 of the homes in Nichols were “severely damaged” or worse.

The town, nestled between two rivers and about six miles from the North Carolina border, is flat broke, Battle said.

With little money to begin with, Nichols already has drained its three-month reserve to help pay for recovery. Officials are hopeful for more federal recovery money, but that aid could take years to trickle down if approved.

Nichols leaders also worry that flood-damaged property has a lower value and will produce less tax money to pay for government services.

“The money is gone,” Battle said. “The only way we’ve been able to survive is the bank, which is locally owned, has allowed us to overdraw.”

Inside a flood-damaged home in Nichols

‘On the brink’

Nichols Mayor Lawson Battle, Jim Battle’s cousin, said a brainstorming session with the town’s leaders and its State House representatives led to the decision to ask the Senate for $700,000.

State Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion, proposes spending that money out of the $4.5 million left over from an aid package for farmers affected by the October 2015 storm.

S.C. lawmakers allocated $40 million in state aid to farmers whose crops were damaged in that storm, but not all of the money has been spent. The leftover money now is in the state’s roughly $8 billion general fund budget.

Five other senators have signed on to the proposal: Democrats Gerald Malloy of Darlington, Nikki Setzler of Lexington and Vincent Sheheen of Kershaw, plus Horry Republicans Greg Hembree and Luke Rankin.

The Senate panel did not vote on the Nichols bailout proposal Thursday. However, chairman Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, said he would discuss the idea with Senate Finance Committee chair Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.

Cromer said he is hesitant to set a precedent – singling out one town for aid – and wants to speak with Leatherman about the most appropriate way to help Nichols.

“We’re not trying to keep you from getting it,” Sen. Cromer told the Nichols representatives. “We just want to make sure we dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T.’ 

Jim Battle asked Cromer to hurry. “We really, really are on the brink.”

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

Nichols ‘on the brink’

235 of 261

Home in Nichols were “severely damaged” or worse after Hurricane Matthew; residents have moved back into about 45 of the town’s homes

7 of 22

Businesses in the town have reopened, at least partially

4 of 6

Churches have reopened

SOURCE: Nichols leaders