How does a community collapse?

Across the northeast swath of South Carolina, the answer is still unfolding. Communities tucked among the Pee Dee region's rivers are recovering from their second major flood in three years that sent local rivers surging and filling towns and neighborhoods with contaminated water.

In the small Marion County town of Nichols, about 8 miles west of the North Carolina border, a skeleton crew of town staff face an uphill battle trying to keep the hamlet together. 

Officials say half of the roughly 400 residents of Nichols did not return after the recent floods. Businesses on the main street remain out of operation, with their doors open, displaying to passersby the ruined floors and water-marked walls that still haven't been cleaned up. 

About 50 miles away, in the Horry County neighborhood of Rosewood, the shock caused by the water is more subtle.

The development's informal network of neighborly support was shattered by the storms. Now, some houses are still vacant; others were sold before damage was repaired. The rising water made Rosewood more transient, upending families that lived there for decades. 

Nichols and Rosewood faced the same floods from the same storms: Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and Hurricane Florence in 2018. The hurricanes stalled over North Carolina, sending slow-moving walls of water down rivers flowing south. Feet of water rose in the two communities, leaving them inundated for a week or more. 

Hurricane Florence's slow-motion path through South Carolina and North Carolina broke flooding and rainfall records. But scientists say it also fits a pattern: as the Earth warms, we can expect to see slower storms, ones that dump previously unheard of amounts of rain. This will require coastal residents and even ones inland to rethink how and where they build, experts say.

In both places, one storm was an unlucky anomaly, maybe even an excuse to make some updates to a house. Two were a catastrophe, compounding everything: the physical work of rebuilding again, the financial stress of replacing belongings, the mental strain of watching a life get buried under water for a second time.

Both communities face questions that are unfolding all over South Carolina and the country. Stronger, wetter storms have made what were previously once-in-a-century events now unfold at unprecedented frequency. The towns and communities in the way were, in many cases, built for a different reality.

Though different, Nichols and Rosewood are each examples of communities that risk collapse. Many people still call them home, but flooding has torn the fabric of each place in ways that are unlikely to be stitched back together.

In one, leaders are trying to keep things afloat, despite the difficult odds. In the other, individual residents have been left to make their own choices to leave or stay. Both places are starved for resources.

Hanging over those efforts is the uncomfortable question that both communities are grappling with: whether what's left is worth saving at all. 

A town struggles 

Since opening in 1936, Pace's Pharmacy in Nichols served generations of the town’s residents. Butch Pace, who started running the business with his father in 1967, said he had come to know people so well that he could track chronic diseases that made their way from one generation to the next.

When the symptoms that plagued a mother showed up in a son, he could suggest treatment early.

“They trusted us and we loved them back,” Pace said.

By the time Matthew’s waters hit, Pace and his wife had sold the business but were still working at the pharmacy. More than 4 feet of water soaked the inside of the store, he said, and $1 million was needed to clean, restock and re-open. The couple decided to stay in Myrtle Beach, where they had evacuated.

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Floodwater fills the town of Nichols on Sept. 20, 2018. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Pace, who grew up near Nichols' Sunny Mart convenience store, said he gets back to the town from time to time. He misses it but doesn’t think it will survive in the long run.

“It leaves an emptiness in your heart,” he said. “Nichols will always be my home. That’s where my heart is.”

Along with the pharmacy, other abandoned buildings line Nichols' main thoroughfare: a town hall, fire department and an appraiser's office. The entire town was under water after both storms. The structures still bear the marks of damaged carpet and scattered furniture. Sandee Rogers, Nichols' administrator, said that one of her goals is to get businesses to fill in the nearly abandoned downtown.

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A lone United States flag hangs in an empty room where signs of flood waters are seen along the walls in one abandoned business in the small town of Nichols on Sept. 17, 2019. The town is cradled by the Lumber River and the Little Pee Dee River, which overflowed from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and from Hurricane Florence back in 2018. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

"We can no longer be a town if we don't have revenue, and if we’re no longer a town, we can no longer help our citizens or help our businesses," Rogers said.

While some shops remain, the ones that did leave, like the pharmacy, have severely diminished the tax base for a small town that didn’t have many resources to start with. 

The remaining economic activity is measured in modest increments: the 8-piece fried chicken meal sold for $10.49 at the Sunny Mart, and gallons of gasoline purchased by farmers headed to Carolina Eastern-Nichols, the fertilizer, seed and chemical company that is the town’s biggest employer. During the busy season, 14 people work there.

Tight finances

Near Pace’s old family pharmacy sits the sign: “We are Nichols Strong. WE WILL REBUILD for the families in Nichols.”

Rebuilding the town isn’t for the sake of nostalgia, but for survival. In 2010, the population of Nichols was 368. Rogers now thinks the number of residents is half that.  

Further complicating the effort to rebuild was that many people did not have flood insurance, Rogers said. Homeowners who are not paying a mortgage on a house in a flood zone are not required to carry policies. 

The town has applied for assistance from the state to demolish homes that were abandoned even before the storms. It is also waiting on the federal government for grants to elevate 32 homes. But for a town trying to survive, the long delays can be fatal.

In the meantime, officials and residents have leaned on the Brethren Disaster Ministries and their steady stream of volunteers to help rebuild homes. Some that were fixed after Matthew were damaged again by Florence. A disaster fund of more than $500,000 in private donations administered by the town and used for some of the work, is running low.

Nichols’ tight finances affect the town’s operations beyond just housing, stretching into smaller costs, like setting up a street fair or placing Christmas lights.

"It’s just an everyday thing, picking and choosing: What do you spend? What do you not spend? What do you cut back?” Rogers said.

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Nichols Town Administrator Sandee Rogers. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The town tried to cut the streets department but that created its own problem. Road workers, along with the S.C. Department of Transportation, are clearing out ditches and repairing crumbling drainage pipes to help water better flow through Nichols.

The town is waiting on a study by a hydrology firm to get a better understanding of why it flooded. But the reality is that the natural beauty of Nichols — its two rivers — puts it in a uniquely vulnerable position when water rushes in from both sides.

The recent storms are seemingly without precedent, but the record-breaking rainfall into the watershed is something scientists predict will become more frequent with climate change as a warmer atmosphere can hold — and dump — more water.

“Are we going to get hit again? I don't know," Rogers said. "But are we doing everything we can to prevent monumental damage if we do? You betcha. We’re worth saving."

A community tries to recover 

Rosewood Estates, a development of about 250 homes built in the early 1980s, sits near the meeting of the Waccamaw River and Intracoastal Waterway, about 20 minutes from the tourist mecca Myrtle Beach.

The Horry County neighborhood is a fundamentally different, and in some ways more modern, type of community than Nichols: no main street, no formal organization as a town, just a group of people in a suburban subdivision who watched out for each other in their own slice of a bigger county.  

While taller, elevated homes with docks line the Waterway, the majority of the houses are one-level, built on a slab. With each flood, water came down the Waccamaw and backed up the Waterway, sitting several feet deep in some places for days.

One homeowner, Terri Wilson, raised her children there over 25 years.

"This neighborhood was incredible," Wilson said. "Everyone kind of knew each other and got along, regardless of our differences. We’re multi-cultural back here, and a lot of veterans, so we had a lot of pride."

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Terri Wilson, husband John Raymund and grandaughter Sophia Raymund, 2, play in the front yard of their home in the Rosewood Estates neighborhood near Myrtle Beach on Aug. 30, 2019. The family's low-lying home has been flooded twice in three years. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

After the first flood, many in the neighborhood saw an opportunity to improve their homes as they rebuilt. But the second flood unleashed a torrent of home sales. 

Wilson stayed. Now a storm veteran, she tried to squeeze every penny out of her house the second time around. She ripped wooden cabinets off her walls before the water came and elevated them on metal racks, but mold bloomed anyway. She pried metal doorknobs off of soggy doors because she knew she could save $10 with each one. 

Others who are sticking it out have turned to any outlet for help.

Seven houses have been elevated or are in the process of elevation by Christian charity group Samaritan's Purse. But some in the neighborhood have objected to the group's screening. It includes details like a criminal background check, credit check and drug test. The narrow income requirements blocked Wilson's family because the wages of her adult children pushed the household over the limit.

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Tom Feish, from Kansas City, Mo., volunteering with Christian charity Samaritan's Purse, helps lift a house in the Rosewood Estates neighborhood in Myrtle Beach on Aug. 30, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Anthony Krofchik, who is managing the charity's work in Horry County, said Samaritan's Purse takes all these factors into consideration to make sure the up to $100,000 per house is well spent. 

"We just want to be certain we’re making a life investment with the money entrusted to us," Krofchik said. 

The group remains one of the few options for those looking to stay and safeguard their homes.

Jennifer Mayfield, by contrast, has left. 

She raised children and grandchildren in her home on Rosewood Drive over three decades, and after Matthew came, decided to rebuild.

Her husband died in the home before the waters arrived a second time, rising over 5 feet. After that, it was time to go. 

"My heart said no, but my brain said yes,” Mayfield said. “So I had to follow my brain.”

Many of the homes in Rosewood have been converted to rentals. Others are vacant, with little remaining sign of the damage other than a dead magnolia tree in the yard, or cryptic fliers in the windows warning that the house is controlled by a property management group.

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Hurricane Florence flooded homes in the Rosewood neighborhood in Socastee in 2018. File/Andrew Whitaker/Staff

Not all the buyers of the damaged homes are investors. Some bought their homes in between the two flooding events, looking for their first chance at home ownership or a place in a friendly community, unaware of the risks they faced.

If the water comes again, Wilson said she and her family aren't coming back. Leaving the neighborhood and its community behind would be "like a death" but it wouldn't be worth it to live through the aftermath of a flood yet again. 

An uncertain future

As Rosewood and Nichols scramble to pick up the little left behind, their residents face a future that may not include their communities. For a few, leaving is an unacceptable option.

"The American Dream says you get a homestead, you put down a root, and you stay and you protect it," said Darlene Demi, who's still fixing up her Rosewood house. "That’s the way my momma raised me and my kids think I’m nuts. But you bet, this is who I am."​

Others in Rosewood say they would be open to the government buying and demolishing their house. But they're at the mercy of the county to ask for federal grants, and Horry County hasn't submitted any applications yet.

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Signs of the high water that invaded her home can still be seen on the front door of Darlene Demi's unfinished house on Aug. 30, 2019. Much work still needs to be completed nearly a year after Hurricane Florence's waters flooded the house. Demi's home had already been renovated after the house met the same flooding fate in 2016. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The county has hired a consultant to do a resiliency study, which will provide a road map for what projects are possible when it finishes next year. 

"There are a lot of places and homeowners that want to be bought out right now, and we need to come up with a methodology," said Courtney Kain, the county's director of community development.

In Nichols, the town's small but present government gives it an advantage. 

The fact that it has its own leaders, and has not been absorbed into the county, makes others pay attention, said John Gaber, the chair of the City Planning and Real Estate Development program at Clemson University.  

Gaber is leading a group of graduate students to study a path for Nichols' future. The town is important, Gaber said, because its widespread devastation is a test case for other communities trying to rebuild after flood destruction.  

While the fate of Nichols is unknown, the decision of whether or not to stay is a balance between sentimental attachments and rational assessments of risk. 

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"This home isn't just for me, it's for everyone," Dianna Owens said on the front porch of her twice-flooded Nichols home. "To leave your home, it takes a toll on you," she said. Sept. 17, 2019. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

If the water comes a third time, Dianna Owens said, she is not sure whether she will try and rebuild. Inside the walls of her Nichols home are memories she can't replace. 

Every Sunday morning, her father would wake her and her two sisters up to pray. A young boy named Jimmie chased Dianna to that same home after elementary school classes. And years later, Jimmie kissed her for the first time, in the living room, before he left to fight in Vietnam. 

It was in that same home that Jimmie and Dianna would sit together, decades into their marriage, absorbing the news that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In 2011, Jimmie died in their bedroom. Dianna said that when she woke up to find that he had passed, she felt a kiss, lingering on her lips. 

Yet again, she said, "He kissed me goodbye.”

Eight years later, her home has been rebuilt twice. It’s memories that keep her in Nichols.

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.