BUCKSPORT — Pete Frazier refused to leave his white ranch house in this small hamlet on Monday, despite evacuation orders and the fact that it had become an island. Car port, underwater. Front and back and side yards, underwater. Grey sedan parked in back, fully drowned.
But Frazier was high and dry. For another foot anyway.
S.C. National Guardsmen in full dry suits rumbled down his street to evacuate people and assess the destructive remnants of Hurricane Florence flowing down gorged rivers on both sides of this quiet community. The crew traveled in a high-water rescue vehicle to make it down some streets.
When they arrived at his house, Frazier declined to budge from his front porch.
Water lapped at it, within a foot of coming inside. But Frazier, who’s 76, insisted he wasn’t leaving. This was home. He lived on the aptly named Frazier Road here in Bucksport, south of Conway, where families date back generations, and the names of roads and memories reflect that.
As the Guard truck rumbled away, Frazier reclined in one of two white wooden rocking chairs on his porch and smoked a stogie. A kitten snoozed on a blue recliner next to him.
His hometown sits in the palm of two major rivers — the Pee Dee and the Waccamaw, plus the large Bull Creek, all of which were flooding their banks. At that moment, water at the historic Bucksport Marina had reached 24.2 feet — and rising — already topping a record 23.7 feet set after Hurricane Matthew’s deluge wrought similar destruction.
Four more feet were headed Frazier's way, if predictions hold true, which they mostly have been so far.
Curse of water
A man named Henry Buck established Bucksport back in the earlier 1800s and got rich off three lumber mills along the Waccamaw River that chewed up the area’s hardwoods, cypress and pine. By 1850, those mills produced 3 million board feet of lumber a year that got sent to Georgetown, Charleston and far beyond.
Buck also ran an enormous plantation and was among the area’s largest owners of enslaved people.
Today, Bucksport remains a mostly black community filled with people who have lived here for generations, many of them military men who returned once retirement allowed and others who left to find work but couldn’t resist the lure of its forests and rivers.
Mostly, those rivers behaved over the years.
The last big flood before Matthew, locals say, was in the 1920s during the highly publicized trial of Edmund Bigham, accused of murdering his mother, brother, sister and nieces. The trial was held in Conway, and the story goes that Bigham cursed those who testified against him.
Indeed, one witness fell dead right there in the courthouse. And perhaps all of Conway fell victim because historic floodwaters rose up then, too, in what became known as the Bigham Freshet, or flood.
Bigham pleaded guilty to get a lighter sentence, and such disastrous flooding didn’t return for almost a century. Until Hurricane Matthew. And now Florence.
'They love each other'
Bucksport remains a place where woods and rivers still trump concrete and asphalt, but like so many growing areas of South Carolina, it sits on the cusp of development.
A marine industrial park is in the works on a 48-acre tract near the marina and water plant. Horry County Council approved an agreement for it this spring with eyes on its employing a couple hundred people.
However, the Coastal Conservation League and Waccamaw Riverkeeper opposed the facility, which would sit on the Waccamaw River right next to a national wildlife refuge. They argued it could pollute the river, threaten wildlife habitat, bring truck traffic to the area’s thin roads and threaten the health of Bucksport residents.
Add flooding to the risks now.
On Monday, the marina sat underwater, and crews from the Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority had spent recent days hauling massive amounts of dirt to build a dike to protect the nearby Bull Creek Water Treatment Plant — and its almost 100,000 customers.
"I'm feeling pretty safe," CEO Fred Richardson said. "There's no water near it yet."
But along the streets near it, house after house — more than two dozen — sit immersed in floodwaters, with four more feet of flooding to come. Many of those homes also flooded two years ago, but residents lacked the money to rebuild.
Many of them gathered on Bucksport Road on Monday, watching the water inch farther and farther up the road, down side streets, into homes.
Lifelong resident Lee Sherman doubted most folks here have flood insurance.
“That’s going to be the issue,” he said.
Yet he also doubted people would leave after this, even though some homes still stunk of mold from Matthew.
Bucksport isn’t just home. It is where family and lifelong friends live, where as a boy Sherman slipped through the woods and swam in the rivers.
“We’re all brothers and sisters, and we unite and come together,” Sherman said. “They love each other.”
And that’s a whole lot more valuable than a house, flooded or not.
Denise McCray spent most of her life on her property, too, but fled Bucksport on Sunday when she awoke to see floodwaters creeping toward her house. She got a hotel with her son and grandson for three nights.
But after that?
She couldn’t process the future yet. She wasn’t even sure how much water was in her house.
Another man walked up and peered, astonished, down Bucksport Road.
“Are those mailboxes?”
What family does
Roosevelt Sherman, a 70-year-old in a black Vietnam veteran cap, has lived in Bucksport his entire life. On Monday, he needed his medication but authorities no longer would let him traverse floodwaters to his house.
Instead, S.C. National Guardsmen helped him aboard the high-water rescue vehicle and pulled a bright orange life jacket over his head.
The dank smell of rot and raw sewage bubbled up from floodwaters covered in a sheen of oil as they drove. Trash, children’s bicycles, beach toys and small porch furniture floated in it.
Knee-high water surrounded Sherman’s sandbagged house. Another Bucksport resident, Garry Gause, hopped out in camo chest waders and slogged through the water to reach the older man’s house.
When Gause made it inside the raised house, still mostly dry, Sherman guided him to his medicine stash. He tried to explain what prescriptions he needed most.
“Tell you what, grab a paper bag and bring it all!” he hollered.
Yet, due to quirks of geography and development, other patches of Bucksport remained dry so far. The Guardsmen drove past an 82-year-old woman whose property was untouched. She too wanted to remain.
Sherman, her younger nephew, scowled with worry. Then he vowed to go rescue her if the waters came this far.
That’s what family does.
If only the flooding was confined to one area, one community, it might be easier to grapple with. But no, it’s come from the north and is heading south.
Ten days after Florence made landfall in North Carolina, Socastee sits in the crosshairs of her floodwaters surging southward. So does Georgetown, another place with a rich history and determination to rise up from challenges, natural and economic.
Local business owners were told the inlet where the Waccamaw and Pee Dee rivers dump into Winyah Bay could rise by several feet over the next couple days.
Several residents in downtown Georgetown heeded that warning and moved possessions out of their homes. Trailers and professional moving trucks were parked alongside streets on the peninsula, familiar sights as the floodwaters travel. A grandfather clock stood in the middle of Cannon street before being trucked away.
Ben Klopp wasn’t moving like his neighbors, though. His house made it through Hurricane Matthew with little to no damage. He figures he’ll make it out of this the same way.
He may move some of his carpets on the first floor upstairs, he said, but he’s staying in Georgetown.
“Everyone makes their own choices,” he said.
Chuck Richardson III unstacked the sandbags along his business on Front Street, but it wasn’t to open his real estate business back up.
More than a week after Florence made landfall, Richardson was doubling up on his flood protections in Georgetown’s historic district.
Shirtless, Richardson buttoned up the Caldwell Banking office the best he could. He added more plywood and thicker sheets of plastic.
“At the very least it will keep the fish, crabs and mud out,” Richardson said.
The threat of a storm surge was gone. The threat now came from the Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers — both swollen with the torrential rains dropped by Florence more than a week ago.
Like many business owners in Georgetown’s historic district, Richardson has become used to flooding in recent years. Hurricane Matthew flooded shops and storefronts along Front Street two years ago.
“We’ve become pros at this,” Richardson said.
Across the street, Chris Ferrell and the other employees of Tomlinson’s packed up everything inside and loaded it into an awaiting moving truck.
They wrapped and boxed picture frames, jewelry and everything else in the historic department store.
“Pretty much everyone on Front Street is packing up and heading for higher ground,” Ferrell said. “Usually I’m the window decorator. Now I’m the box taper.”
If Georgetown winds up like Nichols and Conway and Bucksport, other towns in the flood's path, she might soon also become mover and boater.