It is raining in Nichols, and Averitt “Butch” Pace’s white Buick Enclave is crawling through the Pee Dee town’s deserted business district.
“None of these buildings are occupied,” the 71-year-old says, rolling past the downtown’s flood-wrecked, boarded-up pharmacy, a clothing store, a beauty shop, its propane company, an accounting firm, a laundromat, an auto parts store and a bank. “Everything is closed.”
Before Hurricane Matthew last October, a dozen cars might have been parked along this street, Pace says. Eight more vehicles might have been at the pharmacy, which his family opened in 1936.
But on this bleak Wednesday in June, the Nichols native can slow his SUV to a stop in the middle of South Main Street without bothering a soul.
Pace bristles at being unemployed. But he also can’t imagine spending more than $1 million to re-open Pace’s Pharmacy, one of several downtown businesses that likely will never return.
After all, he says, why would he? Who would come?
Recovery in Nichols has been agonizingly slow since Hurricane Matthew, and Pace – who also lost his home to flooding – is not alone in doubting the rural town of 400 ever will rebound.
Eight months after the rapid rise of the Little Pee Dee and Lumber rivers left Nichols underwater, about 200 of the town’s 261 homes remain empty. So, too, are all but six of the town’s 22 businesses.
There is hardly any activity on Nichols’ streets, save for a few cars passing through to Myrtle Beach and a handful of church groups working to rebuild gutted-out homes.
While town leaders remain optimistic, they also are grappling with financial and regulatory obstacles that stand in the way of rebuilding the tiny town and have few concrete answers to questions about Nichols’ future.
“I’m with you. I’m just as lost as you are,” town clerk Sandee Rogers told a frustrated Pace at a town-hall meeting with small business owners. “I don’t know where to go.
“I’m up for any suggestions.”
A sleepy town where everyone knew everyone and locking the front door was optional, Nichols was not prepared for Hurricane Matthew.
Like much of rural South Carolina, Nichols was in decline before Hurricane Matthew churned along the S.C. coast on Oct. 8, dumping 15 inches of rain in Marion County and flushing nearby rivers from their banks.
Before the storm’s flooding, the tight-knit community was marked by poverty and unemployment. Three out of every four residents were elderly or disabled; working-age residents typically moved away to find jobs.
Every Nichols resident evacuated during the flooding. Now, almost nine months later, some do not have enough money to return.
‘There is some potential’
Nichols is a town in need of reinvention, its leaders say.
Town officials know some businesses and homeowners won’t be back. A return to viability will require something big, they think.
“We’re going to have to come up with some ideas to, hopefully, attract not only people to live in Nichols but make it a destination point,” said Roland Windham, a former Charleston and Spartanburg county administrator hired with grant money to help oversee Nichols’ recovery. “With the two rivers being there – both of them are beautiful rivers – there is some potential there to come up with some ideas of how to reinvent the town around the rivers that destroyed it.”
Nichols officials hope an investment group or major employer might eye the area for development.
Rogers, the town clerk, for instance, envisions a gated retirement community that could offer residents proximity to two rivers and a 45-minute drive to Myrtle Beach.
There are obvious barriers.
For one, town leaders discovered earlier this month that most of Nichols officially lies in a floodplain, a designation that ratchets up rebuilding costs.
Before they can be rebuilt, many homes and businesses must be elevated three to four feet off the ground, a costly process that could ensure the town’s downtown business district stays vacant for years.
Officials, in turn, have considered trying to move Nichols’ downtown, currently nestled at the connection of S.C. 9 and U.S. 76. But residents question whether businesses could succeed if they were located away from the traffic created by the two highways.
And no one is sure where the new downtown would go or who would pay for it.
‘We went to work one day, and the next day, the whole world was different’
Drops of rain still are pattering against Pace’s windshield as he drives through a residential neighborhood in southwest Nichols.
“Empty, empty, empty – both sides of the road,” Pace says, motioning to the hollowed-out homes on Maple Street.
Each house has a story, and Pace seems to know them all. A few streets over, a home that was condemned after a mold outbreak belongs to an elderly couple now staying with their son in Florence.
At another, Pace says, the owners spent “every bit of money they had fixing it up” before giving up and moving to Conway.
On West Pee Dee Street, 60-year-old Travis Bullock moved his family back into their home just last month.
Before that, like several other Nichols residents, the family slept in a camper in the back yard. Eight months and $30,000 in repairs later, his house is livable but still needs work.
“Everything I had was paid for,” Bullock said. “Now, I’ve got a mortgage.”
Two doors down, 58-year-old kindergarten teacher Kathy Turner said she has depleted her savings trying to repair her home’s first floor.
“If I had not had roots here, I don’t know what I would have done,” Turner said.
Still, their homes are the exception.
Most nearby are vacant. Windows are busted out, revealing rotten interiors.
Vines, shrubs and tall grass are reclaiming abandoned lots. Broken TVs, soggy furniture and piles of other junk sit along neighborhood streets.
“Eight months after this thing, just to get people home has been an unbelievable task,” Rogers said. “We went to work one day, and the next day, the whole world was different.”
A steering committee of Nichols residents hopes to help up to 10 families rebuild their homes with grants from the $460,000 donated to the town after the storm.
The federal government has promised another $52 million for Marion County’s poorest hurricane victims. But that money will not trickle down until fall at the earliest.
The uncertainty over whether more help ever will come has been brutal, some residents say. Some have grown frustrated at how the recovery steering committee is spending donated money. They say the town’s working-class residents have fallen through the cracks of local and federal aid.
“Some people in this town have been able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps,” said former S.C. House member Jim Battle, a member of the recovery committee. “The people we’re trying to help now, they don’t have boots.”
‘In my heart, I know we’re going to make it’
Whether Nichols has a future depends largely on whom you ask.
Federal disaster recovery money could help hundreds of Marion County residents rebuild or replace their homes. But that money is months away from arriving at the earliest, and not every disaster victim will be eligible.
Standing in his barren South Nichols Street home, Pace says he doubts enough people will return to attract new businesses.
He expects to sell his house for pennies on the dollar.
“One day, the state will come and they’ll take the ‘town limit’ sign down, and we’ll no longer be a town,” Pace said.
Town officials say they won’t let that happen, saying Nichols is worth saving.
“In my heart, I know we’re going to make it one way or another,” Nichols Mayor Lawson Battle said.
Town clerk Rogers expects a long recovery process — much longer than people would like. It could be two years before residents return home in droves, and five before the town gets a handle on how to resurrect its business district.
“It would be such a waste to see this fall off the map,” Rogers said. “My heart is not willing to let that happen.”
Will Hurricane Matthew claim one last victim?
Last fall, Hurricane Matthew roared through the Caribbean before striking a glancing blow in the Carolinas. The storm caused $15 billion in damages and killed 603 — most in Haiti — including 47 U.S. deaths. Now, some Marion County residents worry the long-gone storm could claim one final victim — the tiny S.C. town of Nichols.
Oct. 8: After devastating part of the Caribbean, Hurricane Matthew churns along the S.C. coast, briefly making landfall as a Category 1 hurricane and dropping 15 inches of rain in Marion County.
Oct. 10: The Little Pee Dee and Lumber Rivers rise rapidly as flood waters in North Carolina head south. Nichols is left underwater, and the entire town evacuates.
Oct. 11: Residents of Nichols and nearby areas begin boating back to their homes and counting their losses. More than 180 evacuees are in county-run shelters, and hundreds more have moved in with friends and relatives. Some return after waters recede later that week to begin gutting their homes. Others return much later to find their homes ruined by mold and residual water.
Oct. 25: Short-term recovery starts. Some homeowners are back, gutting their homes with the help of church and volunteer groups. Officials determine more than 235 homes are “severely damaged” or worse, and more than 300 cars are totaled. Just one business has reopened. About 90 people still are living in a shelter nearby.
December 20: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says it will give South Carolina $65 million for Hurricane Matthew recovery. Later, the department directs the state to spend 80 percent – or roughly $52 million – in Marion County alone. The money can be used to help the disaster’s poorest victims return to their homes, but it likely will not be spent until the fall.
March 9: Nichols leaders plead with state lawmakers for $700,000 in state aid to help replace equipment, vehicles and buildings ruined by the storm. They tell lawmakers more than four of every five homes in town remain vacant.
June 6: S.C. lawmakers approve a budget that includes $700,000 to help Nichols recover.
June 21: Town officials say Nichols must be reinvented if it is to survive, but no one is quite sure how.