NICHOLS — Billy Jones just wants to go back home, but the 78-year-old can't. Nearly a half year after he left it in flood waters from Hurricane Matthew, he can barely breathe in his house because of the mold, even if it had a floor.
Nine of every 10 former residents still can't go home in this tiny Pee Dee town. They and officials struggle to rebuild before the place falls apart as a community. The town took maybe the worst of last October's storm that wreaked more than $100 million damages statewide.
The 400 people who lived here are mostly low- to moderate-income workers and retirees.
Nichols isn't one of those flood-prone towns built straddling a river bottom. It sits on a modest bluff along the Lumber River in Marion County.
Before last year, the worst flood most people could recall sheeted the streets with only a few inches of water, but the town also sits little more than a mile upstream of where the Little Pee Dee River flows into the Lumber.
Matthew's winds did little damage to Nichols, but heavy rains caused more than a half-dozen upstream dams to breach. By the time the flood reached Nichols, the rivers might as well have been one stream — running 4 feet high down the streets.
To glance at Jones' modest brick home, you wouldn't think anything amiss, besides the flap of yellow caution tape still on the door rail, a surgical mask dangling alongside.
"Everything is gone," he said, his eyes tearing up to think of it. "The duct work, the heat pump. They disconnected the water and sewer. They tore out the flooring, the kitchen cabinets, piled them in the street."
Jones is a gentle man who called himself "just a common, ordinary guy." He is a little frail and had lost his wife in January before the flood.
A retired worker living on Social Security, he doesn't have the money to rebuild. He didn't qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency help because he's in the flood plain without insurance. He didn't qualify for loans because he doesn't have enough income.
"It's overwhelming just to try to figure out what to do," said Julie Bumgarner, his daughter.
Sunday evening after the storm, Jones and others began noticing water puddling where it shouldn't have been. Then it was ankle deep, then waist deep.
"When it come, it come. It was just a matter of minutes," he said. "I lost my house. 'Bout lost my life."
Will enough return?
No occupancy signs are posted on window after window. Campers share yard space with rail car-sized debris containers. Businesses are boarded up. New flood codes mean a lot of it will have to be elevated when rebuilt. With its tax base disrupted, the town has exhausted its funds and reserves. It's operating on a grant.
Roland Windham settles with a heave into his office chair after a day of relentless meetings. The retired Charleston County administrator, now working under contract for Nichols, is jumping from crisis management to recovery planning. The town wants to reinvent itself as a riverside tourism and inland port destination.
"Getting people back in the homes" is the most pressing need, Windham said. People displaced from storms tend to stay put after four or five months, so that puts the town at a critical moment.
Asked what would happen if enough of them don't return, he shakes his head. That's the question they don't want to answer, he said.
'We are worth saving'
Workers are setting sheet rock in the living room, while the household goods that weren't lost to the flood wait in stacks on the porch. The place could be livable again in a few weeks.
"So hopefully, that will be by the end of April," said Cynthia Tucker, a retired office worker who lives there with her mother and sister. "We've had so much throwaway." They had been rescued by boat after waving down a helicopter. Nobody thought they were still there because her sister's small sedan was nearly submerged.
One estimate put the repair cost at $77,000. They have a FEMA loan but it isn't enough to finish. They're working through agencies for other help.
At Town Hall, Sandee Rogers keeps up the chipper front of a saleswoman, but her eyes get somber. The town clerk knows what the community she loves is up against. Few of its residents had flood insurance, too big an expense. Each of them will need it or some kind of waiver to get back in their homes, after they rebuild.
"We're not riding on the heels of anyone. It's time to make this town what it can be," she said.
"We are worth saving. We are Small Town America. If we can't save this place, we as Americans are falling down on the job."