‘The worst natural disaster ... anybody here has ever seen’

Even as floodwaters rose around her, 77-year-old Robbie White needed a lot of persuading before she would leave her Marion County home – and her precious cats – in a neighbor’s boat.

Now, “Miss Robbie” does not know when she will return to her home of 50 years.

“I don’t have any clothes,” White said Tuesday. “I don’t have any shoes. I don’t have nothing.”

The water was above White’s knees when she left Fork Retch, a riverside community just south of the small town of Nichols in rural Marion County.

The Little Pee Dee River only kept rising Tuesday, reaching nearly 17 feet high – 8 feet above flood stage – three days after Hurricane Matthew roared along the S.C. coast, dropping about 15 inches of rain in Marion County.

Flushed with water rushing downstream from hard-hit North Carolina, the Little Pee Dee and Lumber rivers, which converge just south of Nichols, now have escaped their banks and flooded entire communities. And it is only expected to get worse as more water comes downstream.

“We’re expecting waters to increase and for there to be more flooding and for more people to be in harm’s way,” said Derrec Becker, a spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Division.

Hundreds of Marion County residents, including the entire town of Nichols, had been evacuated by Tuesday.

Many in the tight-knit communities moved in with friends and family, though nearly three-quarters of Marion County was without power Tuesday.

Also, two Marion County shelters held 165 evacuees, and a special- needs shelter had all 20 beds filled, county administrator Tim Harper said.

The area had experienced some flooding before.

And with frequent warnings from S.C. officials about Hurricane Matthew, residents were braced for some flooding. But even the oldest residents near Nichols never have seen anything like this – the Little Pee Dee had not risen to 16 feet since 1928.

“Fifty years, and I’ve never had to worry about it,” White said. “It’s come up before — don’t get me wrong — but nothing like this.”

Four swift-water rescue teams from across the state were working in Marion County Tuesday, Harper said.

Outside some flooded areas, neighbors pulled on waterproof boots, piled into jonboats and headed back toward their homes to retrieve pets and valuables, and to survey the damage.

Floating over neighborhood streets and front yards, they saw plenty.

The roofs of submerged cars, one-story homes and gazebos were visible above the brown water.

Street signs, stop signs and basketball goals peeked out just above the surface. Grills, golf carts and porch swings had been swept into the woods nearby.

The water was so high and telephone lines so low that boat passengers had to duck to get by at one point.

“Got me some riverfront property!” one man shouted from a passing boat.

At one two-story home along the Little Pee Dee River, a man sat in a rocking chair on a second-floor balcony, watching the water rush by.

“It’s the worst natural disaster that anybody here has ever seen,” said Frank Oliver, chief executive of Wildlife Action Inc., a conservation nonprofit based in Mullins.

The storm will prove extremely costly for many here.

Ansel McClam, for example, has lived in the area for 30 years but, just three months ago, moved into a new, roughly $400,000 house that he built by the Little Pee Dee.

By Tuesday, the river water was 2 feet high in his home, likely causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, McClam estimated. He escaped the area Sunday on a four-wheel-drive tractor, adding the water rose faster than anyone could have expected.

“If I had known for sure it was going to take this route, I would have gotten out of here three or four days ago,” McClam said.

Courtney Price, a 25-year-old nursing student, and her family were among the 150 Nichols residents rescued before the town flooded. Price has flood insurance but lost everything in and around her home, including two vehicles she uses to drive to school in Florence.

“I’m supposed to graduate in May,” Price said. “I hope they don’t kick me out.”

The flooding could prove especially costly for the many Marion County residents who do not have flood insurance. Just 168 Marion County residents have flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program.

White, who learned late Tuesday that her cats had been seen taking refuge on a neighbor’s roof, was not one of them.

Now, she faces a costly recovery process. But, she said Tuesday, her family has been in Fork Retch too long to leave now. “Too much of my life is there,” White said, after seeing cellphone photos of her flooded house, “whether I can salvage any of it or not.”

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