Reck­on­ing with Florence’s dev­as­tat­ing del­uge

Record-shat­ter­ing storm sys­tem has dropped more than 30 inches of rain in some spots The worst of the flood­ing is yet to ar­rive, NOAA warns for the Caroli­nas, Vir­ginia De­spite dire warn­ings, some who live near rivers stay home and hope for the best In

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY TER­RENCE MCCOY

ni­chols, s.c. — The wind rat­tled the house, the rain wouldn’t stop, and Glendale Gilchrist wor­ried it was about to hap­pen again.

All she could think about was that day two years ago, the last time a hur­ri­cane ripped through here. First came the false sense of se­cu­rity. Then the six inches of wa­ter at her doorstep, seem­ingly from nowhere. And fi­nally, her daugh­ter’s fran­tic com­mands that they had to go — now.

Hours later, a tele­vi­sion news­caster’s voice said that the town she’d called home for more than two decades was all but gone.

So Gilchrist, too, re­mained gone, one of many peo­ple who aban­doned this town of 400 res­i­dents — where Hur­ri­cane Matthew flooded nearly ev­ery home and closed half the busi­nesses. For the next 20 or so months, she lived with her fi­ance near North Myr­tle Beach, re­pair­ing her two-bed­room con­crete home bit by bit, un­til she fi­nally moved back here in June.

Now, some two months later, she was ner­vously look­ing out­side, with ev­ery­thing seem­ing on the verge of com­ing apart again.

“I’m too old to start over again,” said Gilchrist, who is 64.

Start­ing over: In small-town Amer­ica, it is more of a ques­tion to mull than a cer­tainty to grasp. When nat­u­ral dis­as­ters strike pow­er­ful ur­ban cen­ters — such as Hous­ton dur­ing Har­vey or New York City dur­ing Sandy — there is a rush of pub­lic re­sources and procla­ma­tions that the storm

will only test the city’s for­mi­da­ble re­solve, noth­ing more, and that the com­mu­nity will come back stronger than be­fore. But for small towns such as Ni­chols, with nei­ther re­sources for nor ex­per­tise in dis­as­ter re­cov­ery, there are only dif­fi­cult and un­cer­tain ques­tions.

Will there be enough money to re­build? Who will come back? And, most ex­is­ten­tial of all, will there be any town left?

“The storm is wreak­ing havoc on our state,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said Fri­day. North Carolina, like South Carolina, faces chal­lenges of poverty and small com­mu­ni­ties with few re­cov­ery re­sources. “And we’re deeply con­cerned for farms, for busi­nesses, for schools and whole com­mu­ni­ties which could be wiped away,” Cooper added.

Nearly ev­ery­thing about re­cov­ery for small and sparsely pop­u­lated places in the United States is harder. Res­i­dents are more likely to be poor or dis­abled and con­trib­ute less in taxes to lo­cal gov­ern­ments. They’re com­par­a­tively iso­lated and can lack the promi­nence and po­lit­i­cal clout of their big-city coun­ter­parts that can help fa­cil­i­tate the flow of needed fund­ing. When dis­as­ter strikes, even small-town res­i­dents’ credit scores take a greater beat­ing, ac­cord­ing to a Moody’s re­port last year on Har­vey’s af­ter­math.

“Af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, we heard from a lot of small towns along the Texas coast who didn’t even know where to start in terms of ac­cess­ing as­sis­tance from the state and FEMA,” said Shan­non Van Zandt, a pro­fes­sor at Texas A&M Univer­sity who has stud­ied dis­as­ter plan­ning. “The im­pacts in larger cities just over­shadow what’s hap­pen­ing in smaller com­mu­ni­ties. The in­ter­est and as­sis­tance just fo­cuses on the larger cities and re­sults in an in­equitable dis­tri­bu­tion of re­sources.”

Law­son Bat­tle, the gruff but car­ing mayor of Ni­chols, had an­other word for it. “For­got­ten,” he said. That’s how he felt in Oc­to­ber 2016 af­ter Matthew had its way with the Caroli­nas and his com­mu­nity. It flooded the nearby Lit­tle Pee Dee and Lum­ber rivers, which in turn flooded the town with feet of wa­ter that stood there for days. Many peo­ple chose never to come back — re­build­ing was too ex­pen­sive for the unin­sured or too ar­du­ous for the frail — in­stead al­low­ing their aban­doned houses to rot.

“We lost a whole town,” Bat­tle said. “We needed more help than what we got . . . . One hun­dred per­cent flooded. Busi­nesses gone.”

And what would be­come of Ni­chols, which had been in de­cline even be­fore Matthew, if such a dis­as­ter hap­pened again? On Fri­day, Florence dumped 10 to 20 inches of rain on North Carolina and was ex­pected to spew an­other 20 to 25 inches. Much of that wa­ter would fol­low river courses into South Carolina.

The out­come could be “cat­a­strophic,” Bat­tle said, shak­ing his head, and per­haps fa­tal. “Peo­ple will be hes­i­tant to re­build their homes twice in two years.”

They’d al­ready lost nearly ev­ery­thing that made a town a town, he said: the bank, the phar­macy, the laun­dro­mat — even the post of­fice, which, af­ter six months of ne­glect and costly re­pairs, fi­nally re­opened last year, with smooth blue floors and re­painted walls. It is the work­place of the town’s courier and un­of­fi­cial mayor, Pam Hug­gins, who’d spent 19 years as courier and knew al­most ev­ery­one. On Fri­day morn­ing, as she was on the road fin­ish­ing up her 350 de­liv­er­ies, her cell­phone was ring­ing non­stop.

She pulled up to the post of­fice and turned off the vin­tage emer­gency light atop her brown sedan. She hur­ried in­side through the wind and the side­ways rain, and then her phone went off again.

“We got a long way to go,” she as­sured the per­son on the other end. “It’s sup­posed to rain way more tonight than it did to­day. You all be safe now.” She hung up. “They’re very anx­ious,” she told the co-work­ers around her. “They don’t know if they can get through this one. Bless her lit­tle heart.”

Although towns like Ni­chols may not have the re­sources or pro­file of larger com­mu­ni­ties, they do ben­e­fit from cer­tain in­tan­gi­bles — the pres­ence of peo­ple such as Hug­gins. The “sil­ver-lin­ing for ru­ral ar­eas,” said Jerry T. Mitchell, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of South Carolina, is their ro­bust “so­cial cap­i­tal.”

“There is ev­i­dence of a tighter com­mu­nity struc­ture that can add to re­siliency for ru­ral pop­u­la­tions that may be harder to come by in a di­verse and dis­con­nected ur­ban pop­u­la­tion,” he said in an email. “Iso­la­tion may help to breed this re­silience as the pop­u­la­tion is used to ‘be­ing on their own.’ ”

But will such re­silience be enough to save Ni­chols if Florence picks up where Matthew left off ?

Hug­gins, prepar­ing to close up the post of­fice, didn’t know. She wanted to hope, sure, but she didn’t know whether that was re­al­is­tic.

“We just aren’t big enough to re­build,” she fi­nally said.

“I don’t think there will be any­thing left,” added her co­worker Melissa Chap­man.

That, how­ever, would be a worry for to­mor­row, and the day af­ter that, as Florence con­tin­ued its pro­tracted and vi­o­lent tra­jec­tory through the Caroli­nas. For now, Hug­gins had to get home, so she ran out to her car once more and pulled out from the post of­fice, her yel­low blinker dis­solv­ing into the gloam­ing.

STEVE HELBER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

RANDALL HILL/REUTERS

ABOVE: Res­i­dents help a man evac­u­ate a flood­ing mo­bile home com­mu­nity Satur­day dur­ing Trop­i­cal Storm Florence in Lum­ber­ton, N.C. TOP: A pickup truck drives past a farm­house sur­rounded by flooded fields Satur­day in Hyde County, N.C.

PHO­TOS BY DAVID GOLDMAN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

TOP: An Amer­i­can flag lies on a ta­ble in the old town hall in Ni­chols, S.C. The build­ing shows the bruis­ing it sus­tained from Hur­ri­cane Matthew’s flood­wa­ters in 2016. Matthew dam­aged or de­stroyed 90 per­cent of the homes in the town. ABOVE: Harry Campbell watches Stoney Wil­liamson un­load a gen­er­a­tor Thurs­day for his brother-in-law, whose home was flooded two years ago. BE­LOW: Wa­ter dam­age from the Matthew del­uge is still ev­i­dent in a store on Main Street in Ni­chols as what re­mains of the town is men­aced by Trop­i­cal Storm Florence. Much of the wa­ter it dumped on North Carolina was ex­pected to fol­low river courses into South Carolina.

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