Gov. Haley visits Georgetown after massive fire hits tourism district

After a tour of the scene Thursday, Gov. Nikki Haley reassures the people of Georgetown she will do everything she can to help them rebuild after Wednesday morning’s major fire on Front Street. Paul Zoeller/Staff

GEORGETOWN — City Councilwoman Jeanette Ard operated a flower shop on Front Street for decades. She lived upstairs and kept three people employed.

But Wednesday’s fire destroyed all that in a couple of hours.

“This was the anchor of the street,” she said of the row of burned out buildings and still-smoldering bricks. “This is the worst. This is the absolute worst.”

A day after fire ripped through seven buildings, wiped-out or shuttered 10 businesses and put 130 people in tourism-dependent jobs out of work, a collection of state and local officials, led by Gov. Nikki Haley, said Georgetown needs help and is inviting everyone to come back.

“I want people to visit Georgetown,” the governor said following a tour of the damage. “I want them to see how beautiful it still is.”

Haley also announced a special fund has been established for private donations to help those affected by the fire. The Front Street Relief Fund is being run through First Citizens Bank. Donations can also be made by calling (843) 546-8591.

Meanwhile, the process of determining the cause of the blaze is continuing, with no early leads announced by fire investigators. The origin point is still believed to be in a deck area behind a local tap room along the city’s Harborwalk area on the Sampit River.

Authorities confirmed Thursday that four rescuers were slightly injured fighting the early morning fire when the facade of one of the buildings blew out onto Front Street.

Three firefighters were later released from a hospital but a Georgetown police officer who received a slight concussion isn’t expected to go home until Friday.

Visitors to Front Street on Thursday could still smell the thick stench of acrid fumes as piles of burned bricks cooled while the odor of charred wood drifted in the wind. A chainlink fence had gone up, keeping people away from the damage. Police officials said that because of the weakened state of the buildings, it could be weeks before Front Street is fully open to cars.

One building was so badly damaged that crews used large equipment to tear down its facade, dropping piles of ash, wood and metal in the street.

With potentially millions of dollars in losses and damages, what can be done in terms of assisting the recovery also remains unclear. Haley and other state and federal officials said they will look where they can for funds that could help in the rebuilding effort, but that public monies might not be there.

“I think it is going to be more private than it is anything else,” Haley said, referring to insurance payments and donations.

“It’s going to depend on the owners,” Georgetown city building official Rick Martin said, referring to how quickly insurance settlements might be reached over the damages. Some victims are still in shock, he said.

Some federal funds might be available on the basis that some of the seven lost buildings were in the National Register Historic District, with the youngest being around 100 years old.

“Keep in mind this is a national historic district,“ said state Sen. Yancy McGill, D-Williamsburg, whose district includes Georgetown.

McGill said the fire can be viewed as having statewide significance, meaning the Legislature should get involved in any way it can, including looking for ways to reimburse the cost of suppressing the blaze.

“This is a major disaster for Georgetown County,” he said. “This is a major disaster for South Carolina,” he said.

Ard was among those trying to find optimism. Her hope? That the piles of historic brick might be rescued and re-used in the rebuilding.

Reach Schuyler Kropf ay 937-5551.