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‘Like I’m having a nightmare:’ Tiny SC town again faces disaster as rivers surge

Fork Retch community hit with second historic flood in two years

The Little Pee Dee River slowly begins to rise over the Fork Retch community Wednesday Sept. 19, 2018, in Nichols, SC.
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The Little Pee Dee River slowly begins to rise over the Fork Retch community Wednesday Sept. 19, 2018, in Nichols, SC.

The boat glided over neighborhood streets and front yards, past submerged street signs and a floating refrigerator and, finally, to Randy Bryant’s flooded-out home on Fork Retch Court.

“I feel like I’m having a nightmare,” the 71-year-old retiree said, surveying the damage wrought by the rising Little Pee Dee River.

It’s a recurring one.

Bryant and his riverside neighbors near Nichols were in these same boats two years ago, astonished at flooding unlike any they ever had seen. Now, days after Hurricane Florence crawled over South Carolina’s Pee Dee region, the water again has submerged Nichols — a foot higher than it did after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 — and still was rising late Thursday.

“You see a lot of floods,” Bryant said. “But these two have topped them all.”

Across the Little Pee Dee, all of Nichols’ 150 or so families have evacuated, heeding warnings from local officials.

That includes the last six families who had pledged to stay put in the town, wedged between two rivers, the Lumber and the Little Pee Dee, that are swelling as trillions of gallons of water rush downstream from North Carolina.

“Everyone has gotten out,” Nichols Town clerk Sandee Rogers said. “Everyone heeded the advice. Thank the Lord, we are not putting our first responders in danger.”

In October 2016, flood waters from Hurricane Matthew left Nichols submerged for 10 days and shut down the town for weeks. Homes were condemned after the flood, and about 100 families decided it was time to leave for good.

Since then, about three-fifths of the town’s 261 households and half of its 22 businesses had returned, only to evacuate again last week with Florence on the way.

By Thursday, the flooding in Nichols was a foot higher than Matthew and still rising, a catastrophe that further will delay the poverty-stricken town’s plans for a revival.

“This is just unfathomable for this to happen twice in two years,” Rogers said.

Members of the Pennsylvania National Guard and Pennsylvania Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team conducted a search and rescue mission in a helicopter near Nichols, South Carolina, Sept. 18, 2018.

Nichols was accessible only by boat or high-water vehicle Thursday. Town leaders and emergency personnel were holed up on high ground in Town Hall Wednesday but couldn’t make it back to the building on Thursday. The flooding was too high for the National Guard’s high-water vehicles to safely pass.

About two miles southwest on Wednesday, Frank Oliver was motoring a boat toward Wildlife Action’s property in Fork Retch.

Thirteen buildings owned by the outdoor education nonprofit were flooded at least four feet each, two years after it spent $134,000 to recover from Matthew’s flooding damage.

It was a sore sight to Oliver, Wildlife Action’s chief executive. The nonprofit relied on donations and its entire $100,000 land-purchase fund to rebuild in 2016. Oliver doesn’t know where the money will come from this time.

“Now, we’re going to be stuck again,” he said.

The owners of the roughly 50 homes in the Fork Retch area are in for a similar dilemma.

Dark brown water from the Little Pee Dee had flushed as high as seven feet into many homes along Fork Retch Court by Wednesday.

Along the river, floating docks had broken loose and smashed into piers and porches. A bloated dog carcass floated on a piece of timber. Five-gallon buckets, a pink Swiffer mop and a tree house were carried into the tree line. The water reached high enough to soak the bottom of the Spanish moss clumps that hung from riverside trees.

“That’s my house,” Bryant said as his borrowed boat passed it. Water covered all but a foot of the door frame. “Gah, that looks terrible.”

Oliver and Bryant could count on one hand the Fork Retch families that didn’t need to conduct major renovations after Matthew. Some could afford to demolish and rebuild their homes. Others could pay to renovate and lift their houses up on stilts. A few left for good.

As they boated through the neighborhood, Oliver and Bryant could tell the story of every home.

One neighbor just had finished building his new house. “Now, it’s gone,” Bryant said.

Another neighbor, 79-year-old Robbie White, had spent two years rebuilding her home after Matthew. She was set to return later this month. But Wednesday, her home was filled again with flood water.

“It’s just a shame because everybody was just now getting their place back together, you know, and now they’re getting hit again,” Oliver said. “This is way worse than any of us thought it was going to be. Hundred-year flood every two years, I mean, come on.”

Justin King and his sister Nichole Black lost their parents, Mark King and Debbie Rion, during Hurricane Florence when the couple died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in Loris, South Carolina.

Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks.
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