Why didn’t Nichols have more warning of severe Hurricane Matthew flooding?

Nichols, SC flooding following Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. (Image Source: Terry Sarvis)

NICHOLS, SC (WBTW) – Hurricane Matthew destroyed many homes and businesses along the South Carolina coast, but the subsequent flooding was devastating to Nichols, SC and Lumberton, NC.

Nichols Mayor Lawson Battle says only about 55 people are living in the town eight months after Hurricane Matthew ripped up the eastern coast. Nearly the entire town of Nichols was under water during the hurricane.

A News13 investigation into why the small town didn’t have better warnings as to how high the water would go, revealed limited equipment stopped the National Weather Center from being able to properly gauge potential flood levels.

The National Weather Center uses river gauges to predict water levels. The center faced unique obstacles because Nichols does not have a gauge, and a backup failed.

“It’s really sad. The house in the front here was the house I grew up in. And when I came out of pharmacy school I built the house in the backyard,” explains Butch Pace.

Pace has lived in Nichols for 71 years, but not he’s unsure if he’ll ever be able to return.

“The house is saturated in fuel oil and is unlivable,” explains Pace.

Pace’s dad opened Pace’s Pharmacy in the ‘30s. It’s the only pharmacy in Nichols, and if Pace can’t return, remaining residents of the town will have to travel to other areas for medicine.

“I miss my patients and my customers and my friends. I miss them greatly. Every time I see them [they ask] ‘when are you coming back?’ I say, ‘I’m trying to make an effort.’”

Pace is living in Myrtle Beach until he decides what to do next.

Mayor Battle says the storm seemed to be over Saturday evening, but by Sunday evening, he was working with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Nichols police and the fire department to rescue people from their homes.

“We had no warnings to give them from North Carolina, from anyone else,” confirms Mayor Battle. “No one knew what was going on.”

Mayor Battle says he’s never seen anything like it in his life.

“It was very real, very humbling and absolutely scary. But you didn’t have time to think about it at a time like that because you were just trying to make sure everybody was safe. The only way to spread the word was by word-of-mouth and going from home to home,” recalls the mayor.

National Weather Service Hydrologist Richard Neuherz says a river gauge monitors the water level. Because Nichols doesn’t have one, Neuherz tried to use the one in Lumberton.

“At one point, the gauge we use in Lumberton went out,” explains Neuherz. “I don’t know what happened to it but the information coming out of it was no good. It is a manually read gauge. At some point the group that reads it had to evacuate the water plant because it was getting flooded, so we didn’t have that information.”

With the gauge readings in Lumberton unavailable, Neuherz was forced to rely on the river gauges in Boardman and Fair Bluff, North Carolina – roughly 27 and 12 miles away, respectively, from Nichols – making it much harder to predict downstream.

“Without a gauge in Nichols itself, it’s difficult to say exactly when the water crested and how quickly,” admits Neuherz.

The weather service had to give a generic flood warning.

“We sent out an aerial flood warning for a lot of places and Nichols was included in that,” reports Neuherz. “We said ‘hey, look for flooding like you’ve never seen before,’ but we couldn’t say the river in Nichols will get to 37 feet, which means this is going to happen. Whereas the point that we get forecast from, the river forecast center, there are defined impacts at each stage.”

Neherz says floods like this will happen again, it’s just a matter of when and being prepared.

Mayor Battle says his crew was able to rescue 148 people, but in the future, he’d like to have a properly working river gauge and better communication.

“I’d like to see some kind of warning system where we talk with North Carolina to get information that they are getting,” reveals Mayor Battle. “If it only gives us an extra hour, that’s an hour for people to get out. There was no time to get belongings or anything. We need to communicate better with them, and maybe have better systems in place to test water levels and water flow volumes to see how high the rivers are rising and how quickly they are coming this way.”

As for hundreds of people in the town, like Pace, there’s a strong hope the town and county administration distribute funds soon to bring the town back.

“I lost my business. My job. Two houses and two cars, and probably my hometown,” sighs Pace.

Neherz says the U.S. Geological Survey helps counties or interested companies pay for river gauges.

Marion County Administrator Tim Harper says the county is not looking into a river gauge at this time, but the EOC is working to develop preventative measures like clearing drains and ditches.