Residents of Georgetown gather to pray before Hurricane Florence floodwaters arrive

A diverse group of more than 100 residents, ministers, first responders, political leaders, business owners and others gather on Georgetown's Front Street to pray as they await Hurricane Florence's flood waters, expected to arrive Wednesday. Jennifer Berry Hawes/Staff

GEORGETOWN — The people here have done every earthly thing they can to prepare for three rivers’ worth of Hurricane Florence floodwaters set to arrive starting Wednesday.

For 11 days, they have watched news reports as those waters enveloped small towns across northeastern South Carolina and threatened coal ash pits. They have learned all about National Weather Service flood projections. They have boarded up, sandbagged, moved out.

Now? They prayed.

More than 100 of them gathered at Joseph Rainey Park in the Historic Waterfront District overlooking some of the very water they asked God to restrain. Among them: moms with children, first responders, ministers, the mayor, the former mayor, the fire chief, politicians, business owners. One man held up a giant wooden cross.

"We are well-prepared," Mayor Brendon Barber assured them, praising the many agencies that have toiled to prepare the city and urging residents to protect life before stuff.

"The only thing that can help now is prayer," he added. "Prayer helped Noah build the ark!"

The crowd cheered, and soon black ministers and white ministers stepped forward, one after another, to ask God for protection. They prayed because they cannot control the flood or the full moon or the high tides.

"It's our desire that God push back the water with his mighty hand," prayed the Rev. Betty Deas Clark, former pastor of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. She's now pastor of historic Bethel AME, where authorities have warned flooding is likely. 

Pastor Jason Coakley of St. Peters Missionary Baptist Church began to sing.

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee

How great Thou art...

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Georgetown pack up

As Georgetown residents and business owners away Hurricane Florence's floodwaters, many packed up and headed away from the water. This truck carried furniture from a restaurant on Front Street where many business owners had amassed sandbags in front of doors and windows. By Jennifer Berry Hawes

As the people sang with him, the mood of Georgetown took on a tone familiar to Pee Dee residents upriver. National Guard trucks rumbled by. The Red Cross arrived. Red lights, Blue lights, U-Hauls, plywood, plastic wrap, sandbags. 

Crews from the state Department of Transportation finished installing large barriers along U.S. Highway 17 in an effort to keep floodwaters from the Great Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers from overtaking Georgetown's key traffic artery and cutting off South Carolina's third oldest city. The Sampit River flows under Highway 17 on the other side of town.

All three rivers course toward Winyah Bay, the floodwaters' final stop on an agonizingly long journey of destruction that began when Florence made landfall Sept. 14 in North Carolina.

The mayor worried that as of Tuesday morning, only seven people in this city of nearly 8,900 had arrived at the local shelter. One more reason to hold a prayer vigil. The idea came to him on Sunday during church services.

"We're a praying city," he explained as an Army Blackhawk helicopter thundered overhead.

Georgetown also is a city that has risen from a series of immense challenges.

Almost precisely 29 years ago, it endured some of the worst devastation that Hurricane Hugo wrought along the coast. In 2013, a devastating fire on Front Street affected at least 10 businesses and cost millions to repair. The hulking steel mill nearby has gone through a series of morale-busting closures and exciting re-openings — most recently a rebirth in June. 

But what if God doesn't protect Georgetown from massive flooding? 

"He might not change things. But He might change you!" Bishop John Smith Jr. of Greater Bibleway Church of Georgetown told those gathered. 

The people erupted in cheers. When it was over, they hugged each other and headed out, many smiling with a fresh resolve of faith.

As they did, Georgetown County officials announced that SCE&G was cutting off natural gas service to Front Street, where the people now dispersed, along with everything from East Bay Street to the marsh in the historic district around them. 

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."