2 years after disastrous flood, Florence scares small town

An American flag flies outside a row of vacant stores damaged from Hurricane Matthew's flooding two years ago in Nichols, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Forecasters say Hurricane Florence could bring 15 to 20 inches (38 to 51 centimeters) of rain to Nichols and the surrounding area, touching off severe flash-flooding. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016 photo, Nichols Methodist Church is seen under floodwaters, in Nichols, S.C. Few places in South Carolina are more worried about the possibility of disastrous inland flooding from Hurricane Florence’s heavy rain than the town of Nichols. When Hurricane Matthew dumped a foot (30 centimeters) of rain on the area two years ago, the town 40 miles (65 kilometers) inland from the coast lost almost 90 percent of its 261 homes. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt, File)
Jodi Pajaro stands in the backyard of her home which was surrounded by water from Hurricane Matthew two years ago in Nichols, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. One of the few houses in Nichols that didn’t flood during Matthew was the nearly 100-year-old home Pajaro inherited from her grandmother. “It kind of makes you wonder - can I be this blessed twice?” Pajaro said as a few raindrops spit from gray skies. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A pharmacy stands boarded up nearly two years after it was flooded from Hurricane Matthew in Nichols, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. The residents of this tiny inland town who rebuilt after Matthew destroyed 90 percent of the homes are uneasy as forecasters warn inland flooding from Hurricane Florence's rain could be one of the most dangerous and devastating parts of the storm. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Jodi Pajaro shows an image of the water which surrounded her home from Hurricane Matthew two years ago in Nichols, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. "Florence has us on pins and needles," said Pajaro whose nearly 100-year-old home was one of the few in the town that did not sustain damage inside. "We don't know what to expect with a flood particularly. With water there isn't much you can do. When it comes, it comes." (AP Photo/David Goldman)
An American flag lays on a table in the old town hall which sits damaged from Hurricane Matthew's flooding two years ago in Nichols, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. The residents of this tiny inland town who rebuilt after Matthew destroyed 90 percent of the homes are uneasy as forecasters warn inland flooding from Hurricane Florence's rain could be one of the most dangerous and devastating parts of the storm. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
FILE-In this Monday, Oct. 10, 2016 file photo, a home sits in flood waters in Nichols, S.C. The residents of a tiny town in South Carolina who rebuilt after an inland flood from a hurricane destroyed 90 percent of the homes two years ago are uneasy as forecasters warn inland flooding from Hurricane Florence's rain could be one of the most dangerous and devastating parts of the storm. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt, File)
Thomas Lee, left, gets help from Stoney Williamson, right, lifting a generator into his home which flooded two years ago from Hurricane Matthew in Nichols, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Few places in South Carolina are more worried about the possibility of disastrous inland flooding from Hurricane Florence’s heavy rain than the town of Nichols. “If it floods like this again, you can just tell Nichols goodbye,” Lee said. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A message greets shoppers of supplies no longer available as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast in Nichols, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. The residents of this tiny inland town who rebuilt after Hurricane Matthew destroyed 90 percent of the homes are uneasy as forecasters warn inland flooding from Florence's rain could be one of the most dangerous and devastating parts of the storm. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Thomas Lee stands outside his home which flooded two years ago from Hurricane Matthew in Nichols, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. "If it floods like this again, you can just tell Nichols goodbye," said Lee as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast with threats of heavy rains that could flood spots inland. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A water line is seen in Thomas Lee's shed which flooded two years ago from Hurricane Matthew in Nichols, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Few places in South Carolina are more worried about the possibility of disastrous inland flooding from Hurricane Florence’s heavy rain than Nichols. “If it floods like this again, you can just tell Nichols goodbye,” Lee said. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Water damage is seen in a store along Main Street nearly two years after it was flooded from Hurricane Matthew in Nichols, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Few places in South Carolina are more worried about the possibility of disastrous inland flooding from Hurricane Florence’s heavy rain than the town of Nichols. Nichols Mayor Lawson Battle says his town is better prepared this time, but he strongly recommended everyone get out because he can’t guarantee it won’t flood. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

NICHOLS, S.C. — One woman left town. Another prays her house might somehow be spared again. And one man will just wait and watch and hope the water doesn't rise.

Few places in South Carolina are more worried about the possibility of disastrous inland flooding from Hurricane Florence's heavy rain than Nichols. When Hurricane Matthew dumped a foot (30 centimeters) of rain on the area two years ago, the town 40 miles (65 kilometers) in from the coast lost almost 90 percent of its 261 homes.

Forecasters said Florence could bring more than 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain to Nichols and the surrounding area as the storm slowly crosses the state over the next few days, touching off catastrophic flash flooding.

"You've done all this to rebuild and you are better prepared, but here you are again, staring down the barrel," Nichols Mayor Lawson Battle said.

Nichols' problem during Matthew in 2016 wasn't the rain falling on the town so much as the backup of water from the swollen Little Pee Dee and Lumber Rivers, which meet just downstream. One man drowned after he refused to leave his home.

Back in 2016, Kathy Finger fell asleep after Matthew's rains ended. She woke up to a strange noise and found water up to her ankles. It was up to her knees before a truck rescued her and others and took them to Town Hall, where they eventually found themselves surrounded by water and had to be rescued by boats the next morning.

On Thursday, Finger was headed for Columbia, well inland, instead of taking her chances again in her rebuilt home.

"Nothing has changed from the last time," she said.

Thomas Lee noticed the water rising that night two years ago and called his brother-in-law, who came by in a dump truck. They rescued several others before the water got too high for them. Lee's shed still has a grimy, wiggly water line some 4 feet (1.2 meters) above the floor.

The town had 22 businesses in 2016. It has 11 now. Main Street is full of boarded-up storefronts, from the old pharmacy to the auto parts store. Lee's home is one of about 150 that were repaired or rebuilt. About 80 homes remain uninhabitable or were torn down, the mayor said.

Lee is staying but plans to watch carefully out his window. If he sees any water coming toward his house, he is either driving away or calling for help again.

"If it floods like this again, you can just tell Nichols goodbye," Lee said.

One of the few houses in Nichols that didn't flood during Matthew was the nearly 100-year-old home Jodi Pajaro inherited from her grandmother. Pajaro was out of town when the flooding started, and water crept toward her house from all sides, stopping just feet away. She had to reach her house by boat and grab what she could five days later. She didn't return permanently for a month.

"It kind of makes you wonder — can I be this blessed twice?" Pajaro said as a few raindrops spit from gray skies.

Nichols' mayor has spent days on the phone with county and state emergency officials. The flood was a surprise in 2016. If it floods in 2018, rescue crews are ready, and help from all areas will come quickly, Battle said.

"Everybody keeps asking me what we need," Battle said of the numerous planning calls. "Right now, I'm taking prayers."

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP

Read his work at https://apnews.com/search/jeffrey%20collins

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For the latest on Hurricane Florence, visit https://www.apnews.com/tag/Hurricanes

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Meg Kinnard contributed to this report from Columbia, South Carolina.

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