The Town of Nichols is working with the Pee Dee Regional Council of Governments to develop a comprehensive plan to help rebuild the town after it suffered two devastating floods in three years. Photo credit: Allen Thompson
NICHOLS, S.C. – Leaders in this Pee Dee town are turning to regional resources to develop a comprehensive plan to help rebuild after the town suffered two devastating floods in three years.
Nichols, which sits at the confluence of the Lumber and Little Pee Dee Rivers, was devastated by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 and Hurricane Florence in September 2018. Hurricane Matthew dumped 17 inches of rain on Nichols, while Florence caused water levels to be 6 to 12 inches higher than Matthew in certain parts of town.
The Pee Dee Regional Council of Governments, based out of Florence, South Carolina, is developing a comprehensive plan to help Nichols rebuild, as well as find sources of revenue, including some grants, to keep the town afloat after the floods. The council, which is largely federally funded, covers six counties in the Pee Dee Region and provides planning and grant administration services to small towns like Nichols that cannot afford them on their own.
The comprehensive plan will include any information the town needs to assess to rebuild, such as demographics, the financial situation, a five-year projection and capital needs. It also includes several elements like economic development, natural resources, community facilities, housing, transportation and priority investment.
“What we hope with the plan is not only to lay out where Nichols wants to go but how they will get there,” said Lindsey Privette, a community and economic development director at Pee Dee COG.
Cameron Sabin, a community and regional resiliency planner at Pee Dee COG, said the town and council are not far along enough in the process to know the sources of funding to help the town rebuild. Discussions about the comprehensive plan began a couple of weeks ago, according to Nichols Town Clerk Sandee Rogers.
“We are just now beginning to find out what Pee Dee COG can do for us,” Rogers said. “We are hoping to find out what else they can help us with. We are excited to see what they bring to the table.”
The first discussion began in 2019 when Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and his office paired Nichols with Pee Dee COG after the second flood.
“Sen. Scott made it clear to me as state director to do whatever we could to help Nichols,” Joe McKeown, Scott’s state director, said. “Our office was a conduit between the council and the town.”
Privette said she met with Rogers to discuss what Pee Dee COG could help the town with after Scott’s office contacted the council.
“Sen. Scott’s office told me Nichols is looking for anyone who can help them,” Privette said.
One thing Privette talked about with Rogers was a potential revitalization of Nichols’ downtown area. They also discussed community development block grants, which come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the South Carolina Department of Commerce.
Privette said Nichols applied for a grant before the first flood, but they were unsuccessful because the percentage of residents with a moderate to low income was not over 51%.
“You have to be above that percentage to get the grant,” Privette said. “I was not over this program before the flood, but the town has a better chance of qualifying now than they did five years ago. I’m not sure if the CDBG grant program will work out for them, but we are hoping for progress.”
Another thing the council has helped the town with is a CDBG grant for the destruction of the Nichols Head Start Center, a school filled with mold in the middle of town.
“The building has sat through the two hurricanes with no clean-up or mitigation,” the town said in a grant summary. “The health hazard this can cause and the building’s vacant status has enabled us to receive the grant for demolition.”
Privette said Pee Dee COG might help Nichols with residential demolition grants in the future, but the council is focusing on how it can help with the downtown area.
“That’s where we are now,” Privette said. “If Sandee hears about anything that might be useful to them, she’s going to investigate. She is so great about looking for resources.”
Finding resources has been a major obstacle for Nichols in the past four years. Aside from the grants Pee Dee COG is assisting with, Nichols has submitted over $108 million in grant pre-applications.
“We are waiting to see what Pee Dee COG presents to determine the affordability versus the structure of what they will present in the plan,” Rogers said.
Privette said the typical cost of a comprehensive plan can range from $15,000 to $40,000, depending on what the town wants to accomplish. Nichols and Pee Dee COG have to agree on a contract, and the town’s payment to the council follows. Plans usually take one to three years to complete, Privette said.
“I think a big topic of discussion will be what the town comes up with to mitigate flooding and what they will be able to afford,” Privette said. “We will help them plan based on their goals.”
Nichols residents and town leaders consistently worry the town will cease to exist without enough funding, especially if a third flood devastates the town.
“Small towns are the backbone of this country,” Rogers said. “How can you let small-town America die if there is help out there to keep it going? I want to be the flagship example of bringing it back.”
Rogers said if the town can secure enough funding to afford a rebuild, nothing can stop the town from growing into a quiet, comfortable tourist stop, to and from the beach.
“When you have two gorgeous rivers for recreation and are 45 minutes from putting your toes in the sand at the beach, we are in a position for growth,” Rogers said. “People are now finding out this is a great little place to live.”
Twelve businesses and 60% of Nichols residents were rebuilding from Hurricane Matthew when Hurricane Florence hit. Photo credit: Town of Nichols
Carolina Eastern, a fertilizer, seed and chemical company, returned after both floods. The company is the town’s biggest employer with 14 workers. Photo Credit: Allen Thompson
Main Street in Nichols is lined with abandoned buildings, many of which were filled with mold and visible water lines from the floods.
Nichols town leaders say a key to rebuilding the town is getting new businesses to replace those that did not return after both floods.