Three months and 21 days.
As he hunts for Vienna sausages and Ritz crackers at the Dollar General in Nichols, Willie Gilchrist can recall exactly how long he was forced out of his home when this tiny Pee Dee town flooded in 2016.
“I ain’t gonna get caught like last time,” the 63-year-old promises as he stocks up for a new hurricane that poses a similar threat.
Hurricane Matthew is seldom out of mind in flood-battered Nichols, where the Main Street business district remains boarded up and vacant, and the walls in Town Hall are covered with maps and graphs charting the town’s slow-but-steady recovery.
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But, now, the quiet town on the way to Myrtle Beach faces another blow. Category 4 Hurricane Florence might miss South Carolina but still is expected to dump as much as 30 inches of water on parts of North Carolina.
Residents of Nichols know that means they could face a re-run of October 2016, when rainwater from Hurricane Matthew flowed down the nearby Lumber and Little Pee Dee rivers from North Carolina and left their town underwater.
“It’s a huge storm, and it’s pulling in a lot of water,” said Al Moore, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Columbia. “It’s going to be dumping a lot of rain. Lakes and rivers are going to recharge really rapidly. … A scenario like Hurricane Matthew — or worse — is definitely a significant possibility right now and may be a probability over time.”
‘They’ve been through a lot’
That would be the last thing that Nichols needs.
Nichols, one of the poorest towns in poor Marion County, still is fighting to rebound from Hurricane Matthew.
Two years after Matthew flooded them out, about half of the town’s 22 businesses have returned. None are on Main Street, where a floodplain designation has ratcheted up the cost of rebuilding.
At least three-fifths of the town’s 261 households have returned home, including more than 40 aided by help from $510,000 in donations to the town.
But Hurricane Florence won’t catch Nichols residents on their heels.
Town leaders are meeting twice a day with county and state emergency officials to go over hurricane projections and plans. National Guard soldiers with tactical vehicles were holed up Tuesday at an armory in nearby Mullins, ready to help residents evacuate, if need be.
Nichols residents said Tuesday they closely are watching news reports about Florence’s trajectory and preparing for the worst.
Residents bought every loaf of bread, plus the hot dog and hamburger buns, in the Dollar General store — the town’s largest grocery — and then again cleaned out the bread shelf after it was restocked Tuesday.
Five cars were lined up at an ice-vending machine in nearby Mullins on Tuesday afternoon.
“They’ve been through a lot,” town clerk Sandee Rogers said Tuesday. “Having gone through the last flood, they’re not going to sit back and pretend it’s not happening.”
Mayor Lawson Battle says he has slept little the past few nights.
“We’re doing a lot better job at it this time, at preparedness,” he said. “We’re just asking everyone to play it safe. Don’t take a chance. If you’ve got somewhere to go, please go.”
Take off? Or hunker down?
Town leaders officially haven’t ordered evacuations. But, when that time comes, they won’t have to tell some residents twice.
“I’m probably going to take off,” said 34-year-old construction worker Kendall Nance, a four-year Nichols resident who was loading up on snacks Tuesday at the Dollar General.
Others, including 32-year-old aspiring comedian Brian Blanton, plan to stick it out and hope for the best.
“We’re just hunkering down, because I’ve got a sick grandfather, and we can’t move him,” Blanton said, adding, “Everybody’s overpreparing.”
“Everybody is very nervous,” said former state Rep. Jim Battle, a Nichols Democrat who has stacked sandbags outside his tobacco warehouse in preparation for Hurricane Florence. “I’m old enough and have been around long enough to know the hurricane is going to do what the hurricane is going to do.”