Politics & Government

Nichols residents evacuate, fearing repeat of flood that left town submerged for days

Nichols residents are ready for hurricane Florence

Nichols was devastated by the after-effects of hurricane Matthew. Heavy rainfall upriver from the town caused widespread flooding and destroyed the town's downtown business district.
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Nichols was devastated by the after-effects of hurricane Matthew. Heavy rainfall upriver from the town caused widespread flooding and destroyed the town's downtown business district.

Two years ago, a dog’s barking at 5 a.m. first alerted Bill and Elizabeth Walker to the rising floodwater from Hurricane Matthew that was about to flush through their riverside home just south of Nichols and ruin almost all of their belongings.

This time around, that warning came in the form of a Marion County sheriff’s deputy. He knocked on their door Friday morning and urged the retirees to evacuate before the torrential downpour from Hurricane Florence can flush the nearby Lumber and Little Pee Dee rivers from their banks.

Like most of Nichols’ residents, the Walkers didn’t need to be told twice. By Sunday afternoon, they had taken almost all of their belongings — furniture, appliances and even cabinet doors — out of their house and shipped them to higher ground. They were about to leave themselves.

“We lost everything in Matthew,” said Elizabeth Walker, a former school superintendent who has lived in the Fork Retch community for six years. “Thank goodness we had enough warning to get everything out.”

All but about six families in Nichols had fled by Sunday after hearing projections that flooding from Florence — which made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane — could submerge the Pee Dee town for the second time in two years.

Local and state officials went door to door in the town of 400 this weekend, telling residents flooding was “more-than-likely imminent” and urging them to leave, Nichols Town Clerk Sandee Rogers told The State.

Town officials know the holdouts and where to find them if the town floods like it did after Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, Rogers said.

That’s a serious possibility after Florence dumped more than 15.5 inches of rain in Marion County, approaching the record of 17.45 inches from one storm set in 1994.

River flooding is a concern for the entire Pee Dee region, according to S.C. Department of Natural Resources spokesman Robert McCullough.

State officials expect flooding from the region’s Lumber, Waccamaw, Little Pee Dee and Pee Dee rivers, primarily because of rainfall and flooding from upstream North Carolina. State officials say rivers will rise over the next few days and crest later in the week.

“It’s like a tsunami, except it comes on the river,’‘ McCullough said. “The water is deceptive. It starts rising. It is at your toes, then your ankles, and before you know it, it is at your knees. And it keeps coming. It’s a slow-motion event.’‘

Rogers said Nichols officials have been told “we could possibly flood as bad if not worse as we did in 2016,” adding she wishes those last six families would leave, too. “We have made every preparation possible.”

After Hurricane Matthew, most Nichols families didn’t need much persuading to leave, Rogers said. “Once you were bit so quickly in the past, you have no problem with leaving.”

But some residents told The State on Sunday they had good reason to stay.

Andrew and Lori Vinson, for example, said they wanted to avoid staying in a shelter after spending three weeks in one after Hurricane Matthew, when about a foot of water entered their home. “Have you ever been in a shelter?” Lori Vinson asked. ”You’ve got my answer.”

James Fowler, a 62-year-old truck driver, said his home did not flood during Matthew and that he wasn’t going to leave it to looters. He parked his truck on higher ground at the Piggly Wiggly in nearby Mullins and cranked up two generators on his porch for power, chaining them to his house.

“I worked too hard for what I’ve got in my house,” Fowler said. “If somebody comes in my house, they’re having a bad day.”

Then there is Noami Johnson, a retired mental health worker who has refused pleas from police and friends to leave her home because the local shelters won’t allow her two poodles, 15-year-old Prince and 14-year-old Chance.

“They’re blind. They’re deaf. They’re old,” Johnson said. “I can’t leave them.”

Johnson, deeply religious and in her eighties, said she is at peace with staying. She said she would climb into her attic or try to escape in her truck if the flooding reaches her house. She politely refused to give a reporter her phone number so he could check in later.

“I’m going to be all right,” she said. “Don’t worry about me.”

Staff writer Sammy Fretwell contributed to this story. Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks.