Hurricane Florence struck the North Carolina coast nearly two weeks ago with punishing wind and rain, causing more than $17 billion in damage and at least 47 deaths. For many residents of the Carolinas, the storm isn’t over: Authorities in Georgetown, South Carolina, have urged thousands of citizens to evacuate as floodwaters from three rivers converge on the area.
The rain that Florence dumped earlier this month has been making its way south, swelling rivers and flooding small towns and farmland in northeast South Carolina. On Tuesday, for example, some homes in Conway, a community about thirty minutes inland from Myrtle Beach, were surrounded by up to six feet of floodwater. The city of Georgetown sits where the Waccamaw, Great Pee Dee, and Sampit rivers meet at Winyah Bay. Authorities are expecting two to four feet of bacteria-contaminated floodwater in parts of Georgetown, starting on Friday and lasting for days. That estimate is down from earlier predictions of eight to ten feet, but still a serious threat to a city that has seen its share of water in recent years.
“This is after the flooding in 2015, which the governor called a ‘1,000-year flood,’ and then Matthew in 2016,” says Jackie Broach-Akers, public information officer for Georgetown County.
In preparation, the county set up two pet-friendly shelters at Georgetown High School and Waccamaw Middle School and is providing door-to-door transportation for those with no means to get there. “We’ve also issued thousands upon thousands of sandbags,” Broach-Akers says.
South Carolina Department of Transportation and the National Guard have put up three- to four-foot-tall aqua-dams along U.S. 17 near the Waccamaw River Bridge between Georgetown and Pawleys Island and alongside Highway 521 to keep water from flooding the roads as long as possible. For the first time in seventy years, Tidelands Georgetown Memorial Hospital has evacuated its patients to a hospital in nearby Murrells Inlet, although the emergency room will remain in operation.
Throughout town, residents are preparing for the worst. Many are leaving town, heading to friends’ homes farther from the rivers, or preparing their houses and businesses for the flood. “There are U-Hauls everywhere,” says Karen Chewning, a longtime Georgetown resident. “A lot of neighbors have moved their valuables out. And the stores are empty. I’ve never seen anything like this before, and I was born here.”
Chewning works at Black Mingo, a clothing and outdoor store downtown on Front Street, which faces the water. “We’ve taken a lot of inventory out,” she says. Neighbors, like Miss Lizzie’s clothing store and Big Tuna seafood restaurant, have also moved everything out. “Rice Birds [a Front Street gift shop] moved things up about five feet high in the store.”
“It’s so sad. These shops will likely be out of business for thirty days,” says Carol Jayroe, a Georgetown native, city councilmember, and real estate agent. “They’re small, family-owned businesses that will struggle to get back when this is over.”
Jayroe lives a block from Winyah Bay. “It’s a beautiful day today,” she says. “Right now, I’m on my front porch drinking coffee waiting to see how high high tide will be.” The gas company has already shut off power in her neighborhood, although the area expects to keep electricity. “We moved all our furniture out of our house yesterday,” Jayroe says. She and her family plan to evacuate. “The feeling throughout town is eerie.”
Chewning agrees. “You see the National Guard everywhere,” she says. She, too, plans to get out of harm’s way. “There’re ferries to get emergency vehicles here if the bridges are swept away. You can’t help but take it seriously.”