At 3:45 a.m., Jerry Hardy’s wife wakes him. He downs a cup of coffee, slips on his rain boots and together they climb into a small camouflage boat docked by their front steps.
The couple drifts into the darkness, keeping an eye out for mailboxes as they head down Waccamaw Drive to the landing near U.S. 501. Since the flood, each workday commute begins with a short voyage.
But Hardy offers no complaints. The 60-year-old carpenter is grateful to have a dry home where he can wait for the Waccamaw River to recede.
That wasn’t the case in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd dumped more than 20 inches of rain upstream and sent the Waccamaw spilling over its banks. Back then, the Hardys lived in a block house that sat squarely on the ground. The river rose 6 feet in their abode and the currents pushed the small dwelling off its foundation. Rather than move, the family rebuilt, this time more than a dozen feet above the earth.
“There’s a few who couldn’t deal after Floyd,” Hardy said. “I can understand. It’s not for everybody. But gosh, we’re so blessed.”
For many along the river, Floyd served as a lesson, one that left them better prepared for this month’s flood. The state’s $60 million disaster of 16 years ago also prompted local leaders to update development regulations, and they worked with federal officials in tearing down homes that never should have been built in such low-lying areas.
“We learned a lot from Floyd,” Conway Mayor Alys Lawson said. “And it made us much more resilient.”
1,000 Homes damaged in Horry County by Hurricane Floyd
Floyd damaged or destroyed more than 1,000 homes in the county. Afterward, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program purchased about 100 properties in Horry and razed the waterlogged homes. Building is now prohibited on that land.
It’s a bad situation. But it could have been worse in a lot of areas.
Steve Gosnell, assistant Horry County administrator over infrastructure and regulation
In Conway, FEMA helped buy and demolish 23 homes, including many near Crabtree Swamp, which flows through the woods behind Trinity United Methodist Church.
Even before Floyd, houses in that area were known to flood.
Bob Grooms’ place on Sherwood Drive was the last one on the left before the swamp. Over the 10-plus years his family lived there, their house flooded eight times.
“People always kind of knew that we were the flood family of Conway,” he said. “Every time it would rain a lot, we knew that we were subject to flooding.”
When Grooms purchased the house in 1988, he knew the single-story home was in a flood zone. But he’d been assured that the property had seen just two floods in the previous 20 years and the water never reached the house. Having lived in the flood zones of Hilton Head, Grooms figured his family would be OK.
They persevered until Floyd.
If you rode through the city of Conway on that Sunday (Oct. 4) during the flooding or even on the Monday afterwards and looked at the houses in Conway, very few of them had water in the house itself. There may be some that are cut off. There may be some that have water surrounding them and you can only get to them by boat, but the houses are dry. And that’s because they were required to be elevated.
Adam Emrick, Conway planning director
Despite the storm’s destruction, Grooms said it proved beneficial for his family. Because of Floyd, they qualified for a FEMA buyout.
“We could have never sold that home,” he said. “Looking back on it, it was just a blessing from God. ... As a Christian, things happen to us that we don’t understand. But we know who’s in control.”
Now a Conway real estate agent, Grooms lives about 2 miles from his former home near Long Avenue Extension. During the recent deluge, no floodwater reached his yard.
Had the government not demolished Grooms’ former house and most of the others around it, city officials say those structures would be underwater now.
“It’s a night and day difference from Floyd,” Lawson said.
7 Conway homes have suffered damage from recent flooding
So far, just seven Conway homes have suffered damage from water entering dwellings, officials said. Most of the flood damage in the city has been limited to sheds, garages or outdoor heating and air units.
“If you rode through the city of Conway on that Sunday (Oct. 4) during the flooding or even on the Monday afterwards and looked at the houses in Conway, very few of them had water in the house itself,” said Adam Emrick, the city’s planning director. “There may be some that are cut off. There may be some that have water surrounding them and you can only get to them by boat, but the houses are dry. And that’s because they were required to be elevated.”
In the years following Floyd, city officials began mandating that new construction in flood zones be built higher off the ground.
The latest version of Conway’s development ordinance requires that all homes be built at least 2 feet above what officials call the “100-year” flood plain. The term means that, based on historical data, there’s a 1 percent chance of floodwaters reaching that level in any year.
During a flyover after the latest storm, Emrick said he was pleased to see that water had not invaded most of Conway’s newer subdivisions.
A few homes that have been built since Floyd did see water intrusion, but Emrick said that happened during the flash flooding on Oct. 4.
That’s impossible to prepare for. You hope that 2 feet above for everybody will get you out of flash flood stage too, but you can’t go back and make houses that aren’t in flood zones elevate.
Adam Emrick, Conway planning director
“That’s impossible to prepare for,” he said. “You hope that 2 feet above for everybody will get you out of flash flood stage too, but you can’t go back and make houses that aren’t in flood zones elevate.”
For some riverfront homeowners, building higher after Floyd wasn’t optional.
FEMA guidelines stipulate that if water damage amounts to at least half the market value of a flood zone home, the owner is required to raise the structure.
“You have no choice,” said Wayne Fox, Horry County’s deputy director of code enforcement.
County officials must wait for the floodwaters to recede before they can calculate a complete assessment of the flood damage.
They know at least 323 homes suffered structural damage and they estimate those losses total more than $9 million. That amount does not include homes on the river and the Intracoastal Waterway still underwater.
County roads will cost about $1 million to repair, and nearly the same amount will be needed to replace outfall ditches, pipes and other drainage infrastructure that washed away during the storm.
Despite the recent devastation, county officials say changes to development rules and the efforts of Horry’s stormwater division prevented broader destruction.
“It’s a bad situation,” said Steve Gosnell, the assistant county administrator for infrastructure and regulation. “But it could have been worse in a lot of areas.”
When Floyd struck in 1999, the county’s stormwater program was in its infancy. County officials had noticed problems during other storms, and they were particularly concerned about subdivisions being built so low that water pooled in them. So leaders increased the elevation requirements for road building and home construction in flood zones.
“The way our design is, (water) backs up into the roads first and into the yards,” Gosnell said. “That has to fill up before it gets to the houses based on the new regs we have.”
Along with the development policies, county leaders also beefed up the stormwater department, which now has 27 employees as well as 10 temporary workers.
Before the program developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the county’s public works department maintained Horry roads and the ditches that ran beside them. Today the stormwater division bushhogs 69 miles of ditches and cleans another 55 miles by hand. They clear branches and other debris from large canals that allow stormwater to drain into larger water sources.
Those enhancements helped the county avoid greater destruction this month, officials said, though they noted at the flash flooding hit still hit some communities in Little River, Carolina Forest and Socastee hard.
Most of the 323 damaged homes the county documented aren’t in a flood zone. Officials said some drainage systems were simply overwhelmed by the downpour.
“Everybody thought their drainpipe was blocked or plugged or had something in it,” Gosnell said. “It was full of water, taking everything it could take.”
“When we have a 200-year rain event,” added Thom Roth, the county’s deputy stormwater manager, “the systems are not going to handle those.”
Still, officials said, they expect to learn from this storm, too.
"We can always improve," Gosnell said. "We can always find these areas where we had some flooding that we didn’t anticipate because water overtopped the road that we may want to look at for potential changes."
Despite all the updates after Floyd, this flood has still been punishing, even for those who did everything they could to prepare.
“People really don’t understand unless they have been there,” said Tonya Richardson, a maid who has lived in the Waccamaw Lane area for 24 years. “They don’t understand what it’s like.”
I can’t have any complaints. It’ll be gone down in two weeks. And you know what? Hey, ain’t nothing I can do about it. It’s just an inconvenience. And I love it back here. Any other time, you couldn’t ask for a better place.
Helen Cook, resident of Waccamaw Lane neighborhood since 1981
After Floyd destroyed her mobile home, Richardson bought another one and built it higher off the ground. But as of Thursday afternoon, she had no running water and was traveling back and forth to the U.S. 501 landing on a small raft. FEMA won’t be able to assess her damage until the water level falls, which could take more than a week.
Since the river rose, Richardson hasn’t been able to return to work.
“This takes a mental toll and everything on you,” she said. “It’s bad. ... I don’t really want to go clean anybody’s house when I can’t even clean my own right now, you know?”
This flood’s devastation aside, Richardson’s neighbor Helen Cook insists the disaster isn’t as bad as Floyd, which forced Cook and her baby to live in a motel for three months.
“That’s the worst one I ever went through,” said Cook, who has lived in the riverfront neighborhood since 1981.
Although she could have moved away years ago, Cook said her mother gave her the property where her home stands and she’s not about to abandon it.
“I can’t have any complaints,” she said. “It’ll be gone down in two weeks. And you know what? Hey, ain’t nothing I can do about it. It’s just an inconvenience. And I love it back here. Any other time, you couldn’t ask for a better place.”
Hardy has no plans to move, either. After Floyd destroyed his first home here, FEMA offered to buy the property. He declined. The money would have simply covered his debt on the land, and he would rather stay here anyway.
The Hardys are caring for two foster children, and the flood has given them an opportunity to talk about faith in the midst of challenges.
“Some Christians say, ‘If you have enough faith, nothing bad will ever happen to you.’ Well, that’s just not true,” he said. “Faith is persevering. ... We are going to have trouble.”
Yet any difficulties that arise from living on the river are a tradeoff he’s willing to make.
“There’s just something magical about this place right here,” he said. “It seems like a perfect place.”