BUCKSPORT — Everywhere the water recedes, it leaves its mark behind.
On squat brick houses and the bright white Victoria Chapel Church in Bucksport, a muddy smear sat about two feet above the water level. On every building, there was evidence of where the water had touched — even the bottoms of bushes had turned brown, their leaves curling, more befitting a drought than a flood.
Monday was the beginning of the third week that residents of the small, quiet neighborhood between two rivers off Highway 701 had been living with floodwaters blocking important roads and surrounding their homes. Water pooled like a muddy tea, its serene reflection of the cloudless sky only broken when a truck slowly rolled over Bucksport Road, kicking up wake and with it a raw, barnyard stench.
Some Bucksport residents had languished in shelters for four weeks now, since the original evacuation warning for Hurricane Florence. Dean Hunt, whose home was not flooded but was surrounded by the water, stayed behind in part to help the others who had stayed, too, handing out food, water and cleaning supplies.
"I was the only one out here with a flat bottom boat," Hunt said, explaining his informal post as the neighborhood's courier. "I stayed through the whole storm. They said, 'You better get out.' I said 'Shoot, why?'"
For days, Hunt had been the main link between about 15 stranded residents and the outside world. On Monday, he was finally able to navigate his silver Chevy Silverado all the way down the road.
Water levels in Conway, Bucksport and in other areas of Horry County are slowly lowering as the crest of the flood wave unleashed by Hurricane Florence weeks ago slowly moves downstream.
In the sections hit hardest by Florence, recovery efforts will stretch for days or even weeks. There are still more than 100 people in shelters in South Carolina, according to the Red Cross, and countless more staying with family, in motels or hotels. Water still covers the Conway Riverwalk and the parking lot behind the county seat's main government complex.
Life was in some ways beginning to return to normal. S.C. Department of Transportation Workers slowly began dismantling a great barrier of sand on U.S. 501 meant to stave off the rising Waccamaw River. Children returned to school in Georgetown County on Monday, and the city's historic Front Street was bustling, even as spot flooding briefly closed down lanes at the intersection with Orange Street, the city's most vulnerable point.
Students return to class in Horry County on Tuesday, after a three-week break in instruction that a school spokesperson called "uncharted territory" for the state's third-largest district.
But the Waccamaw in Conway has not yet fallen below the previous record set after Hurricane Matthew, even though the crest technically rolled through the city days ago. The river might not even leave what National Weather Service forecasters call "major flood level" until next week.
For weary residents, it is a frustrating, real-life example of a a wonky scientific concept: flood wave attenuation. Flood waves roll more and more slowly down rivers, because water spills into nearby streams and swamps, and then empties out behind the crest after it has passed, making the height of the crest shorter but making the water linger longer.
"You have this prolonged sense of this flooding everywhere that is just never-ending," said Kelly Kaminski, of Catholic Charities.
Kaminski's group, as well as the Salvation Army and Impact Ministries, a local organization, were distributing food, water, toiletries and cleaning supplies to a winding line of cars next to a warehouse on 16th Avenue in Conway. Many of the volunteers handing out packages had themselves been displaced. Just a few streets away, some streets were still covered with water that had spilled out of Crabtree Swamp.
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At the warehouse and in Hunt's Bucksport deliveries, bleach was a key component. The rank smell of floodwaters floated above everything they dampened, and a Red Cross volunteer outside Bucksport warned those venturing inside that the water was "contaminated."
The water doesn't just carry health risks, it seeped into homes' insulation, warped floors and compromised foundations. Annie Frazier's petite blue and white house in Bucksport now had a hump in the middle of the floor, she said, because the flood might have dislodged some of the footing of the house. Just a week ago, Pete Frazier, her husband, had refused to leave the home when the national guard came knocking.
"It's hard to look at that now," she said, gazing at the house from the porch of a cousin who had opened his home to her and her husband.
Wind hadn't knocked the house down in the storm — that was something. But the water was an issue that will take weeks of wrangling, and probably many phone calls to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
There had already been about 4,800 FEMA registrations in Horry County, Kaminski said. The prospect of navigating FEMA's bureaucracy had many names among flood victims—a "dance," a "game," a "negotiation."
Frazier is skeptical the agency will help much at all.
In Conway, Russ Clardy was doing his best to get the crawlspace of his home, which had been filled with flood waters, as dry as he could to minimize the damage that will need to be paid for.
"This is when the work starts," Clardy said. "There's a lot of moisture in there."
The smell in his still-damp yard made him think about the hog lagoons in North Carolina, some of which bled the animal's waste into rivers. He worries about his 18-week-old baby re-entering the house.
Clardy hadn't worried in 2015 when he bought the home. It was a few streets away from Crabtree Swamp, far enough that he said didn't think twice about the water that spilled out reaching his home.
But he's learned his lesson. Next time, he swore, he will have flood insurance.