Nichols, in Marion County, South Carolina, was flooded by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 and again by Hurricane Florence in September 2018. Photo Credit: Town of Nichols
NICHOLS, S.C. – Four years after Hurricane Matthew dumped over 17 inches of rain on this Pee Dee town, Nichols Mayor Lawson Battle still hears the sound of a young man shouting and fighting for his life from the top of a partially submerged SUV.
The young man was a student on the way home from school in the October 2016 floodwaters. He was inches away from drowning in the middle of the night.
“It was pitch, black dark, and he was lost in the water on a dirt road,” Battle said. “We were motoring the boat outside of town looking for people to rescue, and we heard someone screaming for help. We got there just in time.”
Battle and water rescue volunteers from a nearby Dillon, South Carolina, fire department brought the man back to Nichols Town Hall for the remainder of the night.
“I remember calling his mom to tell her we had rescued her son, and she shouted praises and cried,” Battle said. “It was one of the most humbling experiences I will ever have.”
Nichols, a small town in Marion County, South Carolina, was devastated by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and again by Hurricane Florence in September 2018. Floodwaters completely washed out the town during Matthew, and water levels were six to 12 inches higher during Florence in certain parts of town.
Hurricane Matthew claimed over 40 deaths in the U.S., including four in South Carolina. More than 50 died in Hurricane Florence, eight in South Carolina.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, damages from Hurricane Matthew were estimated at $10 billion, while Hurricane Florence wreaked $24 billion in damages.
Battle said emergency workers and volunteers rescued almost 150 Nichols residents during Hurricane Matthew, though no rescues were made two years later during Florence. The town urged residents to evacuate before Hurricane Florence due to the severity of the first flood.
Floods like these are uncommon in Nichols, despite the town’s location at the center of the river basin where the Lumber and Little Pee Dee Rivers meet.
The potential of a third flood is still on everyone’s mind, Nichols resident Kathy Turner said.
Home is where the heart is, and home is Nichols
Turner, a teacher in nearby Mullins, South Carolina, raised her daughter in Nichols and has been married to her husband, Robert, for 41 years. She and Robert decided to rebuild their home in the town limits after both floods.
The Turners first saw water levels rising out of their guest bedroom window when Hurricane Matthew hit.
“I went outside to take something to the trash can. Some of our neighbors passed by and said ‘y’all better come on’,” Turner said. “I was wondering what in the world they meant by that.”
Robert soon found out water was quickly coming into town.
“I could see it all over his face,” Turner said. “He’s not a very emotional person, but it was written all over his face. He told us we needed to start getting some things together immediately.”
Like Battle, Turner said residents were shocked because they had never seen Nichols flood like this.
“We had two hours to grab what we could during Matthew,” Turner said. “We helped get our elderly neighbors out of their house as well when the water was at the stop sign on our street.”
Turner said the couple received federal grant money for rent and spent their entire savings on the first flood because they did not have flood insurance. They were able to stay with friends who lived a few miles outside of town during both storms.
With help from various faith organizations, friends and a few strangers, they moved back into their home in October 2017. Eleven months later, Hurricane Florence hit.
“We were better warned this time,” Turner said. “We moved every piece of furniture, and Robert even rolled up our new carpet. However, we could not get back in as quickly this time because the water didn’t recede as fast.”
Turner said she had nothing to hold onto but her faith, friends, family and blessings from strangers.
As she was working in the yard on repairs, a stranger helping one of her neighbors saw her and walked over to give her a gift.
“He told me I was the hardest-working lady he ever saw,” Turner said. “I opened up the white paper he gave me and found two $100 bills inside. It’s things like that you will never forget.”
Turner said their home had to be sprayed with mold cleaner during Florence. Drywalls had to be cut four feet above flood stage, installation had to be removed and new floors had to be installed.
“The South Carolina Baptist Association, the Mennonites and various other organizations and strangers were so kind to help us out,” Turner said. “Seeing complete strangers pour out their hearts was so moving.”
The Turners returned to their home a second time after Hurricane Florence in June 2019. She is hoping more can be done to prevent the severity of a potential third flood in Nichols.
“I would love to see the rivers dredged,” Turner said. “I think it would actually benefit the fish and the residents, and everyone could be happy at once.”
Like the Turners, Allen Thompson, a sales representative at Carolina Eastern in Nichols, also grew up and has lived in the Nichols area for decades. Carolina Eastern, a fertilizer, seed and chemical company for farmers, is the town’s biggest employer. Thompson said the business’ decision to return after suffering through two floods was a no-brainer.
“We have a strong following here, and we are growing every year,” Thompson said. “We have a lot invested in this area, and our company felt strongly about this location.”
The scene after each flood still haunts Thompson to this day. He said water was over 40 inches deep inside of the building during Florence.
“It was pitch, black dark in the warehouse since there are no skylights back there,” Thompson said. “I saw dead fish on the floor in here when we first got back in. They had 50-gallon barrels of mold cleaner at Town Hall, and we would go up there and fill up five-gallon buckets of it to wash down the walls.”
Thompson and his wife did not lose their home in the floods since they live outside of town on higher ground. However, their drugstore in nearby Fair Bluff, North Carolina, was flooded out in Hurricane Matthew.
“I used to enjoy watching The Weather Channel,” Thompson said. “But now, when the music comes on during hurricane coverage, it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”
Taking advantage of an opportunity to help rebuild the place they love
Mother and daughter duo Crystal and Savanah Tiller own The Grey Nickel Boutique in Nichols. They used to operate a store at the beach, but they moved their business to Nichols after Hurricane Florence to help the town rebuild.
“Savannah’s originally from here, and she felt like she needed to come back to her hometown and help,” Crystal said.
The Tillers said water was about three feet deep in the building during Florence prior to opening the boutique. They gutted the building out, remodeled it and opened a couple of months later in November 2018.
For a while, they were the only new business to open in town after both floods, Crystal said.
“This has been Savannah’s business to begin with,” Crystal said. “She wanted to come back here, hoping others would follow suit and come back to build the town back.”
Though all residents want Nichols to survive financially, they wonder if they would return after a potential third flood.
“If it happens a third time, I don’t know,” Turner said. “I want to put blinders on when crossing the rivers on the way to school every day.”
Battle knows businesses like Carolina Eastern and The Grey Nickel Boutique play a crucial role in the town’s future, but he emphasized federal and state funding could mean life or death for the town.
“If we see any grant that we are eligible for, we apply for it,” Battle said. “If we don’t get funding that we’ve desperately applied for, or if another flood wipes us out, there may be no town to govern.”
Read the second story in this three-part series:
Weathering two storms: S.C. town in need of funding to survive floods
Nichols Mayor Lawson Battle said 150 residents were rescued during Hurricane Matthew, and none were rescued during Hurricane Florence. Photo credit: Town of Nichols
Nichols residents Robert and Kathy Turner spent their entire life savings to rebuild their home after the first flood. Less than two years later, they were flooded out again. Photo credit: Kathy Turner
The Turners decided to return to Nichols after their home was flooded out twice in three years. Photo credit: Kathy Turner
Pace’s Pharmacy decided not to return to Nichols after the first flood in October 2016. Photo Credit: Town of Nichols
Floodwaters were 40 inches deep in Carolina Eastern’s warehouse. The fertilizer, seed and chemical company for farmers is Nichols’ biggest employer. Photo credit: Allen Thompson
Sales representative Allen Thompson said Carolina Eastern’s decision to return after both floods was a no-brainer because the business has a huge following.