Authorities in Georgetown County, South Carolina, are urging thousands of people to evacuate ahead of historic flooding in an area where multiple swollen rivers converge.
The county escaped the brunt of Hurricane Florence’s wind, but it sits at the mouths of the Waccamaw, Great Pee Dee and Sampit rivers.
Parts of Georgetown County will see at least 10 feet of flooding, forecasters say. Key words: at least. The flooding is expected to begin Tuesday and will last through the weekend.
“The Pee Dee River is the big elephant in the room,” Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway said in a press conference Thursday.
The Great Pee Dee and the larger Waccamaw River have already swollen to record levels upstream — as demonstrated by the flooding 40 miles north in and around Conway, where the Waccamaw is still rising — and that water is now traveling downstream at historic levels.
There is no benchmark for comparison, not even the destruction wrought by Hurricane Matthew last year, Hemingway said.
Making matters worse is the potential for tides to exacerbate floodwater levels. Normally, from low tide to high tide, Georgetown sees about a 3-foot difference in the water level where the Great Pee Dee River meets Winyah Bay.
Monday night’s full moon means high tides will be even higher. If the rivers hit peak crest during a high tide, flooding will spread even farther into the city.
Hemingway said water levels were expected to be at their highest later in the week. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources anticipates the waters will crest late Wednesday night and into early Thursday morning, Hemingway said.
How the city is preparing
All of the preparation comes more than a week after Florence made landfall and pummeled the Carolinas with wind and rain.
On Monday, the death toll from the storm rose to 47 after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s office said three more deaths had been confirmed in that state.
The rainfall that Florence dumped on North Carolina has been crawling downriver for more than two weeks. It’s now set to inundate the homes and businesses belonging to Georgetown County’s more than 61,000 people — almost 8,000 of whom are being urged to evacuate.
A significant portion of the city is expected to be underwater.
Critical infrastructure is already being prepared and hardened. Along Highway 17, which connects Georgetown to the nearby South Carolina coast and its beaches, flood barriers are being erected.
According to Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall, the agency is using aquadams along portions of Highway 17 to keep water off the road and keep the highway open as long as possible. But officials believe it will need to close at some point.
Officials worry that the flooding could wash away the portion of the highway that links the bridges spanning the Great Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers.
As a precaution, the South Carolina National Guard is building a floating ribbon bridge, capable of carrying heavy equipment, across the Waccamaw River.
Experts have arrived to monitor the flooding and keep an eye on the bridges, Deputy Secretary of Engineering for the Department of Transportation Leland Colvin said. The bridges won’t reopen until they’ve been inspected following the flooding.
The US Army Corps of Engineers is also on location, ready to respond, help and offer support in whatever way the state or FEMA ask, according to Brigadier General Diana Holland, commander of the Army Corps South Atlantic Division.
“We know there will be a significant rise in the rivers, where they converge here,” she said. “We’ll just have to see.”
All 19 Georgetown County schools were closed Monday until further notice. Several are “at risk for substantial flooding damage,” county officials say. Two of them, Georgetown High School and Waccamaw Middle School, have opened as pet-friendly shelters.
The Georgetown County Water and Sewer District is also scrambling to prepare. The Waccamaw River, which supplies drinking water for the county, will soon contain dangerous pollutants from the floodwater.
Ray Gagnon, executive director of the water district, told reporters that the district is working to protect all of its facilities in the “inundation zone,” and preparing other sources of water — including aquifers, recovery wells, groundwater wells and the county’s interconnect with the nearby Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority.
Sandbags are also being distributed — up to 10 per household — but the county warned on its Facebook page, “Keep in mind that sandbags will not seal out water.”
A waiting game
Thomas Cafe sits on Front Street, the main drag in Georgetown. It looks almost exactly like did it did when it opened in 1929.
The menu and the booths are original, as is most of the decor — even the refrigerator.
In its 89-year history, it has never flooded before. Matthew’s floodwater reached only to its back door.
“We’re expected to get water in this time,” said Olivia Goins, who has waited tables there for five years.
On Tuesday, the cafe won’t be serving its famous $10.95 shrimp and grits. It will close for one of the few times in its history so employees can remove the fridges and freezers ahead of the flood.
Like many residents and business owners in the city, they’re trying to prepare in any way they can, but in the end, there’s not much they can do.
“Water is water,” Goins said bluntly.
Chuck Richardson spent Monday afternoon trying to fortify a building he owns in Georgetown with large planks of plywood, sandbags and a rubber membrane. He hoped it would be enough.
“Might not keep the water out,” he said, “but hopefully keep the fish and crabs and mud out.”
Thankfully, he’s had plenty of experience preparing for these types of events.
“Oh yeah, we’re pros at this,” he joked. “We try to do it at least once a year whether we want to or not.”
There’s nothing anyone can really do; the floodwater is coming and, by all forecasts, will be catastrophic. Goins, Richardson and the city of Georgetown are stuck playing the waiting game.
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of the Georgetown County Administrator’s name