Hours later, a television newscaster’s voice said that the town she’d called home for more than two decades was all but gone.
So Gilchrist, too, remained gone, one of many people who abandoned this town of 400 residents — where Hurricane Matthew flooded nearly every home and closed half the businesses. For the next 20 or so months, she lived with her fiance near North Myrtle Beach, repairing her two-bedroom concrete home bit by bit, until she finally moved back here in June.
Now, some two months later, she was nervously looking outside, with everything seeming on the verge of coming apart again.
“I’m too old to start over again,” said Gilchrist, who is 64.
Starting over: In small-town America, it is more of a question to mull than a certainty to grasp. When natural disasters strike powerful urban centers — such as Houston during Harvey or New York City during Sandy — there is a rush of public resources and proclamations that the storm will only test the city’s formidable resolve, nothing more, and that the community will come back stronger than before. But for small towns such as Nichols, with neither resources for nor expertise in disaster recovery, there are only difficult and uncertain questions.
Will there be enough money to rebuild?
And, most existential of all, will there be any town left?
“The storm is wreaking havoc on our state,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said Friday. North Carolina, like South Carolina, faces challenges of poverty and small communities with few recovery resources. “And we’re deeply concerned for farms, for businesses, for schools and whole communities which could be wiped away,” Cooper added.
Nearly everything about recovery for small and sparsely populated places in the United States is harder. Residents are more likely to be poor or disabled and contribute less in taxes to local governments. They’re comparatively isolated and can lack the prominence and political clout of their big-city counterparts that can help facilitate the flow of needed funding. When disaster strikes, even small towns’ credit scores can take a greater beating, according to a Moody’s report last year on Harvey’s aftermath.
“After Hurricane Harvey, we heard from a lot of small towns along the Texas coast who didn’t even know where to start in terms of accessing assistance from the state and FEMA,” said Shannon Van Zandt, a professor at Texas A&M University who has studied disaster planning. “The impacts in larger cities just overshadow what’s happening in smaller communities. The interest and assistance just focuses on the larger cities and results in an inequitable distribution of resources.”
Lawson Battle, the gruff but caring mayor of Nichols, had another word for it.
That’s how he felt in October 2016 after Matthew had its way with the Carolinas and his community. It flooded the nearby Little Pee Dee and Lumber rivers, which in turn flooded the town with feet of water that stood there for days. Many people chose never to come back — rebuilding was too expensive for the uninsured or too arduous for the frail — instead allowing their abandoned houses to rot.
“We lost a whole town,” Battle said. “We needed more help than what we got. . . . One hundred percent flooded. Businesses gone.”
And what would become of Nichols, which had been in decline even before Matthew, if such a disaster happened again? On Friday, Florence dumped 10 to 20 inches of rain on North Carolina and was expected to spew another 20 to 25 inches. Much of that water would follow river courses into South Carolina.
The outcome could be “catastrophic,” Battle said, shaking his head, and perhaps fatal. “People will be hesitant to rebuild their homes twice in two years.”
They’d already lost nearly everything that made a town a town, he said: the bank, the pharmacy, the laundromat — even the post office, which, after six months of neglect and costly repairs, finally reopened last year, with smooth blue floors and repainted walls. It is the workplace of the town’s courier and unofficial mayor, Pam Huggins, who’d spent 19 years as courier and knew almost everyone. On Friday morning, as she was on the road finishing up her 350 deliveries, her cellphone was ringing nonstop.
She pulled up to the post office and turned off the vintage emergency light atop her brown sedan. She hurried inside through the wind and the sideways rain, and then her phone went off again.
“We got a long way to go,” she assured the person on the other end. “It’s supposed to rain way more tonight than it did today. You all be safe now.”
“They’re very anxious,” she told the co-workers around her. “They don’t know if they can get through this one. Bless her little heart.”
Although towns like Nichols may not have the resources or profile of larger communities, they do benefit from certain intangibles — the presence of people such as Huggins. The “silver-lining for rural areas,” said Jerry T. Mitchell, a professor at the University of South Carolina, is their robust “social capital.”
“There is evidence of a tighter community structure that can add to resiliency for rural populations that may be harder to come by in a diverse and disconnected urban population,” he said in an email. “Isolation may help to breed this resilience as the population is used to ‘being on their own.’ ”
But will such resilience be enough to save Nichols if Florence picks up where Matthew left off?
Huggins, preparing to close up the post office, didn’t know. She wanted to hope, sure, but she didn’t know whether that was realistic.
“We just aren’t big enough to rebuild,” she finally said.
“I don’t think there will be anything left,” added her co-worker Melissa Chapman.
That, however, would be a worry for tomorrow, and the day after that, as Florence continued its protracted and violent trajectory through the Carolinas. For now, Huggins had to get home, so she ran out to her car once more and pulled out from the post office, her yellow blinker dissolving into the gloaming.
Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately described the findings of a Moody's report about the effect of Hurricane Harvey on credit scores. According to the report, credit scores of small towns – not small-town residents – can be more negatively affected by natural disasters than those of larger municipalities. This story has been updated.