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10 months after historic flood, recovery is slow, painful in rural Kingstree

Residents in Kingstree still recovering from flood

Heavy rains in October left several homes under water along Maple Street.
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Heavy rains in October left several homes under water along Maple Street.

The plywood floors, bare rooms and lack of central air conditioning in her storm-wrecked Williamsburg County house have taken some getting used to for Melissa Wilson.

It has been almost 10 months since the nearby Black River roiled under record rains and filled Wilson’s home with flood water.

Today, after running out of money for repairs, Wilson is not so much living in the home as surviving in it. She stays cooped up in her bedroom, keeping cool this summer with a single air conditioning unit.

Wilson is not alone.

Instead, she is one of more than 760 families in hard-hit Williamsburg and Georgetown counties working with disaster-recovery managers to find help after the historic Oct. 4 storm. Hundreds of those households are among the neediest in the state.

But recovery for many in poor, rural South Carolina is moving slowly. State officials estimate it will be next spring before they can start putting “hammers to nails” with nearly $100 million in federal flood-recovery aid.

Ten months after the flood, about half the rooms in Wilson’s roughly 40-year-old house do not have electricity. What furniture she has remains wrapped up. The sheet-rock walls still need to be finished and painted. The new sink and refrigerator in the kitchen look sorely out of place.

“It’s antagonizing. It’s heartbreaking,” said Wilson, a 44-year-old certified nursing assistant who has owned the home for 12 years. “It’s really difficult for me to deal with sometimes. But, thank God, I’m still here.”

‘It’s antagonizing. It’s heartbreaking. It’s really difficult for me to deal with sometimes. But, thank God, I’m still here.’

— said Melissa Wilson of Kingstree, a 44-year-old certified nursing assistant, now living in her partially repaired house

Some of Wilson’s neighbors on South Longstreet Street are not.

Two nearby homes had to be demolished after the poor, low-lying neighborhood, affectionately known as “The Bottom,” suffered heavy flooding during the Oct. 4 storm.

Several other homes lie abandoned, broken windows offering a glimpse at derelict insides.

“It was a terrible time down here,” said 41-year-old Sylvia Bull, Wilson’s cousin and next-door neighbor.

Wilson, her neighbors and hundreds more in hard-hit Williamsburg and Georgetown counties are recovering slowly, if at all, from the storm, which poured roughly two feet of rain water on Kingstree.

Many await housing help – an influx of money or volunteers – to get back on their feet.

‘It’ll break your heart’

In high-poverty areas like Williamsburg and Georgetown, some situations are dire.

Poor residents who were unprepared financially for the flood cannot afford to fix their homes or to leave. Some flooding victims are stuck in homes infested with mold left by the storm.

“I wish I could call it a horror story, but it’s more like the common story,” said Kelly Kaminski, regional coordinator of Catholic Charities’ Pee Dee office, which is helping South Carolina’s coastal counties with flood recovery.

‘I wish I could call it a horror story, but it’s more like the common story.’

— Kelly Kaminski, regional coordinator of Catholic Charities’ Pee Dee office, which is helping coastal counties with flood recovery

Some help is on the way.

State disaster recovery officials plan to spend $96.8 million in federal flood-recovery aid to repair or replace storm-damaged homes. S.C. officials now are working toward receiving federal approval for that plan.

When the state is cleared to use that money, possibly by next spring, officials plan to target the state’s most “vulnerable” flooding victims, the poor, elderly or disabled whom data show are the least able to recover from a disaster.

Disaster case managers are working with at least 760 households in Williamsburg and Georgetown counties, Catholic Charities’ Kaminski said. That number counts only families who have called the 2-1-1 helpline and submitted paperwork to be included in the aid system.

State officials estimate more than 515 households in the two counties are in “high- and medium-vulnerability” storm-affected homes. The figures for Williamsburg and Georgetown counties are easily the highest in the state, S.C. Disaster Recovery Office spokeswoman Beth Parks said.

“It’ll break your heart, it really will,” Parks said. “It’s shocking for me to find out that here’s someone who has (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and they’re living in a home that has mold. They don’t know where it is, but they can smell it.”

‘It’ll break your heart, it really will. It’s shocking for me to find out that here’s someone who has (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and they’re living in a home that has mold. They don’t know where it is, but they can smell it.’

— S.C. Disaster Recovery Office spokeswoman Beth Parks

‘Looking for a place to stay’

A walk through The Bottom illustrates the slow pace of recovery.

Some in the tight-knit neighborhood remember or have heard of the flood of 1973 – the last time neighbors had to be rescued by boat.

Then, the Black River in Kingstree rose to nearly 19.8 feet from its normal depth of roughly 7 feet, according to National Weather Service data. In October, the river rose to 22.65 feet, and the devastation was much worse, neighbors from The Bottom say.

Ruby Harrison, 63, sometimes comes back to the area to sit with her friends on a porch near the now-vacant lot that once held her home. The lot now is overgrown with weeds. A Bible and lawnmower lie on the ground, where the foundation used to be.

Harrison tears up when she talks about the home she rented for 21 years and everything she lost to the flood waters.

“I’m still looking for a place to stay,” said Harrison, who receives Social Security disability benefits. “People want so much for rent now. It’s hard.”

Maebelle Boykin owns and rents out two homes down the street, closer to the river. She was able to fix up one – a mobile home – but the other still looks as if the waters just receded.

“I just can’t afford it,” said Boykin, who is retired.

Waiting to ‘get back to normal’

For three months after the storm, Wilson had to leave her home.

After volunteers gutted the house to prevent a mold outbreak, the nursing assistant spent about $20,000 on repairs – three-quarters of that from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Now, she said, she has run out of money needed to finish the work.

“I don’t make enough to start with, and then I had to do all of this,” she said.

After calling the 2-1-1 helpline, Wilson worked with disaster-recovery case managers to get help. But, for now, she waits, hoping for help from some of the federal aid that was given to the state.

“As soon as I can get it repaired,” she said, “I can be back to normal.”

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

The flood: 10 months later

Ten months after last October’s historic flood, Williamsburg and Georgia counties – in poor, rural South Carolina – have yet to recover. A look at the continuing woes:

760+

Households in Williamsburg and Georgetown counties seeking recovery aid

515+

Households in the two counties that state officials are targeting for aid

$96.8 million

Federal disaster-recovery aid that state officials plan to use to repair or replace storm-damaged homes; it might be next spring before that money is put to work

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