GEORGETOWN — For residents of this waterfront city, Wednesday brought a torturous version of the age-old question: Do you want the good news or the bad news first?
Their good news was that a deluge of floodwater headed their way might not rise as high as first predicted. Georgetown County officials announced that instead of the 5 to 10 feet of flooding expected in the hardest-hit areas, prediction models now estimated 2 to 4 feet.
So the bad news?
Destructive volumes of water are still coming, but not on Wednesday. Or Thursday. Instead, revised predictions showed that water coursing toward the area on a long journey of destruction from North Carolina — where Hurricane Florence hit almost two weeks ago now — had slowed and wouldn't arrive until Friday or even Saturday.
The massive storm dumped at least 11 trillion gallons of water on the Carolinas, much of which has been draining down the Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers, leaving behind a wake of drowned homes, dangerous microbes and daunting financial questions about insurance and repairs. On Wednesday, it also flooded a Conway waste treatment plant, causing a spill of untreated wastewater into a tributary of the Waccamaw.
All of that is now headed here, to more densely populated Georgetown, where the rivers flow right by the city's historic district, and out into Winyah Bay.
On Wednesday, that historic district sat largely abandoned, signs reading: Closed. That meant businesses were losing money — adding to the financial pain and disruption that began weeks earlier as the region prepped for Florence's unwanted arrival.
The latest delay in the floodwaters' long and agonizing march to the sea only prolonged and worsened the economic suffering.
"It's Friday now?" gasped an irritated Deborah Sprang, who owns a Front Street building that's home to multiple businesses. "They're losing money here, and people on Front Street can't afford to lose money here. It's been two weeks."
The Front Street area of the Historic Waterfront District — a picturesque center of live oaks, water views and charming old buildings — suffered a devastating fire in 2013. Businesses and homes flooded after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Each time, local leaders and business owners have worked to lure tourism back.
On Wednesday, people strolled through the area to see if flooding had arrived yet, though all they saw was a slightly higher tide than normal that left pools of water on the road. The Weather Channel filmed there. TV trucks came and went. S.C. National Guard trucks rumbled down parched streets. The Red Cross prepared food. Parents walked with their children, out of school for yet another day.
Melissa Levey strolled from her workplace on Front Street, past sandbags and plastic-wrapped storefronts, under a bright blue sky.
"We went to take a tour of the damage," she said wryly.
Kathe Crooks, her colleague at C&C Auction Co., noted that closed businesses were losing money after many also paid to move their merchandise and store it. "We've had a week's worth of lost revenue."
Waste plant floods
Upstream, floodwaters primarily from the Great Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers have enveloped communities such as Nichols, Conway and Bucksport with devastating, record-busting floods. Those communities have finally seen the worst of Florence’s floodwaters after an excruciating wait for the rivers to reach their peaks.
In Conway, the Waccamaw didn’t subside so much as it just stopped rising — topping out Wednesday at 3 feet higher than it did in Hurricane Matthew.
That was enough, however, to invade the Conway Wastewater Treatment Plant, causing a discharge of untreated wastewater into a tributary that feeds into the Waccamaw River, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority notified DHEC of the breach, but the agency did not immediately detail how much of this contaminated water had spilled from the plant.
DHEC advised citizens to avoid all contact with water around and downstream of this facility.
Others escaped potential disaster, including Santee Cooper, the state-owned power company that had marshaled more than 100 workers to protect a pit of coal ash south of town.
The pit avoided the floodwaters by inches. The river lapped up to the edge of a temporary dam installed on top of levees that would have been swamped otherwise. The utility had feared that floodwaters might sweep up some of the 200,000 tons of ash left over from burning coal, but those fears began to subside Wednesday.
Santee Cooper said its water quality testing hadn’t detected any leaks, and it said it would start cleaning out the last of the coal ash once the river falls back to normal levels. That could be a while: The river was expected to stay above its previous record into next week.
The rivers in the area are moving downstream more slowly than expected. But that could prove to be a break for Georgetown, as the water is spreading more widely than expected as well, bringing flooding projections down.
"We may not see quite the vertical rise originally predicted," Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway said.
However, he and other officials urges residents not to let their guards down. The predictions could change again as quickly as they did Wednesday. And though forecasts currently call for less flooding than expected, the city is still expected to see the water rise higher than it did after Hurricane Matthew.
Flood forecasters face a bit of a challenge in interpreting data from different river gauges in the region. The ones upriver in Conway provide forecasters more historic data. The gauges in Georgetown have stored less historic information, so jibing the two locations to form predictions for an historic flooding event can be a bit tricky.
"It is very, very difficult to correlate the reporting of these gauges to the upstream gauges to be able to predict the timing and the level of what we will be expecting," Hemingway said. "That's the most difficult part of this process."
Georgetown Mayor Brendon Barber Sr. noted that residents and business owners weren't the only ones running on fumes.
"Please realize that this is our fourth week of emergency operations for preparedness," he noted. Yet, they all must remain vigilant, as should residents.
"This aftermath of Florence," he said, "I think I'd name it 'the silent assassin.'"
Thad Moore contributed to this report.