Leaders in Nichols fight to keep struggling town alive

Leaders in Nichols fight to keep struggling town alive

NICHOLS, SC (WMBF) – WMBF News has been taking a closer look at areas across the Pee Dee and how they’re working to save the place they call home.

In the town of Nichols, leaders are working to rebuild a place that’s been washed out by not one, but two hurricanes in the past two years.

Hurricane Matthew was the first to bring destruction and then Hurricane Florence.

“It’s been a challenging time since October 8th of 2016 when the first hurricane came in,” Nichols Mayor Lawson Battle said.

Nichols is situated between the Lumber and Little Pee Dee Rivers. It’s a quaint town, lined with green pastures and is the epitome of small-town America.

Town of Nichols (Source: WMBF News)
Town of Nichols (Source: WMBF News)

“Nichols was a thriving town when I was growing up, a lot of traffic, a lot of stores open,” Battle said.

Nichols Town Administrator Sandy Rogers said before the floods, they were working on revitalizing the town that took a hit after a large plant shutdown in the 1980s.

“At one time this was a really big industrial town and a farming town. The rail road came through, a lot of hustle and bustle,” Rogers said. “45 minutes from North Myrtle Beach, 25 minutes from Dillon Inland Port, the railroad, we have beautiful rivers.”

But those plans were put on hold.

“Hurricane Matthew was a shock to everyone,” town councilwoman Estella Lee-Harrell said.

“Never seen anything like it. It was complete chaos,” Battle said.

Battle said the day after Hurricane Matthew hit is when the water levels started rising and fast.

The National Guard rescued nearly 150 people from their homes to town hall. Floodwaters damaged nearly 400 homes, all four area churches and 22 businesses.

“People would roll over in their bed asleep and their hand would hit water. It was the thing nightmares were made of and had no idea it was coming,” Rogers said.

Hurricane Matthew hits the town of Nichols in 2016 (Source: WMBF News)
Hurricane Matthew hits the town of Nichols in 2016 (Source: WMBF News)

Lee-Harrell was born in Nichols and moved back in 2011 to help take care of her mother.

She took WMBF News through room by room and showed us the second round of rebuilding her home.

“With Matthew, the house like I said was gutted. You could see from one room all the way through,” Lee-Harrell said.

She said it cost $56,000 to repair her home after Matthew. Through volunteer groups, $500,000 in donated funds and federal financial assistance, she and others in the town were getting back on their feet.

“We had around 135 to 145 back, not quite sure the number of people, but then Florence comes in and wipes it out even worse than Matthew,” Battle said.

In some parts of the town, water levels were six to 12 inches higher from Florence than in Matthew.

Lee-Harrell said she got back into her home in Dec. 2017, then nine months later, Florence hit.

“It was depressing. I mean I was really, wasn’t just shocked, it was like, really? Twice?” Lee-Harrell said.

Unlike during Matthew, the Nichols Town Hall didn’t stand a chance against Florence’s sweeping waters.

However, town leaders said they were better prepared this time, going door-to-door four days prior and urging people to evacuate.

“I think that was a saving grace. We got them out and the water started coming up and it did not stop,” Rogers said.

Rogers said after Matthew there were tears, but there was hope in starting over. The second time around, a feeling of numbness filled the community. There were no tears, just tough decisions.

Town of Nichols (Source: WMBF News)
Town of Nichols (Source: WMBF News)

“Do we stay, do we leave, do we give up? And that’s a harder set of problems to deal with,” Rogers said.

WMBF News Florence reporter Nia Watson asked Rogers is she’s worried about Nichols ceasing to exist.

“We were struggling with that thought process before we were flooded, so absolutely when the flood hit that’s prevalent in our minds 24/7,” Rogers answered.

But town leaders said 2019 is off to a good start.

The first phase of a hydrology study on the potential causes and prevention of future flooding is in its first phase.

Parts of an ordinance that required certain people to elevate their homes two feet before they could repair was rescinded, allowing people to get back in their homes quicker.

“We had to get people back in these homes because if you wait two years, a lot of these homes may not be worth elevating,” Battle said.

Soon, the town will start working with Clemson University on ways to restore their community back to its glory days. Grad students will travel to Nichols to strategize on ways to attract new businesses.

“People believe in Nichols and the fact that small towns can do this, don’t give up on us,” Rogers said.

“Nichols is very much worth saving. Nichols is the heart of small-town America and that’s what we are and we are going to save Nichols,” Battle said.

Rogers said the governor’s flood commission and a town subcommittee will be identifying and cleaning out ditches and canals, so that should another flood happen, water would be able to flow out of Nichols. The process is expected to start this summer.

As for councilwoman Lee-Harrell, she hopes to be back in her home by May.

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