NICHOLS — When Hurricane Matthew caused a pair of swollen rivers to swamp this tiny town two years ago, people thought that was as bad as things could ever get. So they soldiered through the deluge, scraped mud and mold from their homes and tried to rebuild from the soggy wreckage.

Then came Hurricane Florence, followed by her floodwaters, coursing downstream from North Carolina toward small rural towns like Nichols in the Pee Dee region. 

The flood arrived Thursday.

One road going into Nichols was caved in at a bridge crossing — an entire lane just gone into the river below. S.C. National Guard soldiers in high-water rescue vehicles discovered it Thursday morning.

They turned around.

Going the other way into town, deer swam for their lives, dogs wandered lost and a white Ford Mustang lay swamped in floodwater where its driver crashed crossing a massive chunk of missing roadside, also caved in from floodwaters. Nobody was inside.

Then came Nichols itself.

Picture an entire town of about 400 people entirely underwater, with a rapid river current surging down streets where elderly folks normally take leisurely strolls under the canopy of old oaks and pines. Water, still rising, reached the pumps at the local Exxon station and busted into Straight Way Ministries, leaving the glass front door dangling from a broken metal arm amid thigh-deep water. Nearby, someone’s white wooden rocking chair floated down a street like a leaf in a pond.

Even the building housing the town hall, police station and library — among the highest points in town — sat filled with several feet of water.

National Guard soldiers had mounted a massive effort the previous day to save the building, where some municipal records are kept on paper. They heaved sandbags, one on top of the other, as water rose outside. They stacked some 800 of them in all, but still the water kept coming. It rose several feet before it finally seeped in, rising inch upon inch until even the soldiers headed out as darkness fell, the last ones to leave town.

Before they did, Nichols officials managed to move the most important records to an elevated safe, and they ferried the rest out of harm's way to other locations. The Guardsmen felt certain that every resident had escaped the rising waters as well.

“There’s nothing we can do now but be thankful we got out,” Sandee Rogers, the town's manager, said.

What hurts her most is imagining people seeing their homes underwater like this and waiting who knows how long until the water recedes. Then the rising heat will breed mold and other problems, just as it did after Matthew.

Pee Dee flooding

Floodwaters still covered the town of Nichols on Friday, September 21, 2018. Lauren Petracca/Staff

“I know their hearts are broken,” Rogers said. “There’s no way to repair that. We’ve got to reach for those bootstraps again.”

Every road into Nichols was closed as rivers continued to rise and spill their banks. The Lumber River appeared near cresting late Thursday, but the Little Pee Dee was still a ways from reaching that mark. Even the soldier's giant high-water rescue trucks couldn't reach town hall safely anymore.

Mayor Lawson Battle had never seen it flood so bad, not even after Hurricane Matthew engulfed the town. After that, he said, almost no federal or state money made it here to help with repairs despite more than 200 homes, nearly every one in the town proper, suffering flood damage.

“I haven’t seen (disaster aid) being used for its purpose — not at all. It put a roof on one home in Nichols,” Battle said.

Instead, private individuals donated more than $500,000 out of their own pockets to help, and that rebuilt many homes, town officials said.

Nichols, which hopes to be a peaceful small-town destination for people drawn toward the Grand Strand's beaches, also had recently opened a quaint amphitheater. Hope filled its futures again.

Still, much of the work remained unfinished. And now this sucker punch.

Some 4 to 6 feet of water covers the entire town. Homes, churches, the local post office and gas station — all damaged.

"It's shattering to see," Rogers said. "Everything we rebuilt — everything they rebuilt — I'm afraid they won't see again."

Though the town didn't receive much repair money after Matthew, it did receive a $1.5 million federal and state hazard mitigation grant to study the floods and develop ideas for ways to help save Nichols from future disasters.

By Thursday afternoon, it was hard to imagine how a single house here could have escaped the flooding. 

The mayor, whose family has owned Battle Oil Company near town for four generations, imagined friends he'd known his entire life losing so much. About 40 percent of residents, he estimated, had flood insurance after Matthew. About 60 percent did this time.

He isn't among them. Who thought this would happen again?

As Thursday wore on, a Blackhawk helicopter thundered overhead and landed in a field beside Battle Oil. The mayor walked alone across the field toward it, ball cap in hand, to go survey damage to the town he’s called home his entire life.

Pee Dee flooding

Floodwaters cover the town of Nichols on Friday, and flooding is expected to remain a threat in the state's northeastern corner for several more days. September 21, 2018. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Contact Jennifer Hawes at 843-937-5563. Follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."