Severe Weather Blog

Heartbroken South Carolina families giving up on river life

When the Waccamaw River overflowed in last year’s historic flood, lapping all the way up to the raised porches in Jackson Bluff, the close-knit riverside community came together to rebuild. But on Monday, as they watched a year’s worth of hard work slowly being submerged by water that’s expected to rise higher than last October, many of them were calling it quits.

Some of the 20 families who have lived for decades in the riverside neighborhood near Conway are packing up and not coming back.

“I can’t handle another flood. I can’t rebuild again. I can’t,” said Gayle Schroeder, 46, as she sat on her porch looking out at what’s left of her favorite tree.

“It was not even over. We were still in the middle of getting back to being ourselves and living life again and then boom, it’s just taken from us again,” she said.

Exactly a year ago, families in Jackson Bluff were scrubbing the muck off their houses, fixing broken sheds, and replacing rotting wood. Just a few weeks ago, they had celebrated the fact that grass was finally starting to cover the bald patches in their yards.

“My husband had just got done remodeling … we got four more years on our house, and it’d be paid off and be all ours,” Schroeder said. “But now … we can’t rebuild it. Last year was bad, but this is going to be worse ’cause the water’s just going to keep going.”

According to the National Weather Service, the Waccamaw was expected to rise to around 16 feet. Schroeder said they had heard it might be closer to 20 feet, making their house unsalvageable.

“You just gotta start and rebuild your life again, I guess. Somewhere new. Like my son said, you can’t sit around and mope about it,” she said. “You got to pick yourself up and go on with life.”

She and her husband, son and her son’s fiance evacuated their house during the storm, which made landfall 60 miles south as a Category 1 on Saturday. They stayed with her sister-in-law in North Myrtle Beach. Schroeder said when the wind turned, it sounded like a train.

When they returned to their home on Monday morning, they had to get to work quickly. The water was rising. Schroeder stacked clothes on the bed and put documents in boxes, as her husband and son took the boat back and forth to their truck parked two miles away where the water turned back into a road.

Her husband, Rod, a roofer, points out a nail he hammered into the porch to mark the spot where the water level crested last October. An hour later, the water had visibly inched higher. This time the river will get into the house, destroying it from the inside, he said.

“I love it here, but we’re going to have to sell the place,” he said. “Last year they said it was a thousand-year flood, but now it’s more like an annual flood.”

His neighbor Judy Cooke, 53, agrees. She has lived in Jackson Bluff for 26 years.

“I can’t even count them anymore. They’re supposed to be 100-year floods. But I can’t even count them,” she said.

Cooke lives with her daughter and two granddaughters, 4 and 9 years old. They decided not to evacuate and wait out the storm in their house because no shelter would take their four dogs. The hurricane-force winds push down a tree on top of their house. Luckily no one was hurt.

“We wouldn’t have been here when the tree fell; we would never have put our girls in danger if the shelter took dogs,” she said.

At least last year the flooding was easier to bear because Jackson Bluff didn’t lose power, Cooke said.

“It’s still horrible, but you could paddle to your dock slash porch, shut the door and forget all about it,” she said, laughing and then catching herself. “If you’re not giggling about something, you’re crying.”

This year, losing power and the record level of water were the final straw, Cooke said. She and her family are leaving, too. They don’t know where they are going, yet.

“We would stay, and we have, every time that the water has come up before,” she said. “But now it’s forecast to come in (to the house). That’s a different story.”

On Sunday, she was filling the boat with “family essentials” and hoped to come back on Tuesday to take away some favorite pieces of furniture before the water claims her living room.

“Once the water comes up to a level it starts crawling up your walls, it comes in, it’s over,” Cooke said. One of her neighbors nearly went broke trying to rid his house of the stubborn mold that entered every crack after last October’s flood. On Monday, the dreaded mildew spots were back. He is probably leaving too, Cooke said.

But for now, Jackson Bluff is just packing up. Once the water recedes, they will take stock of what’s left. Some will stay and rebuild again, but most will leave the homes they’ve lived in for decades.

On Monday, as they packed, the Schroeders took breaks to sit on their porch, shifting up the steps as the water unrelentingly crept upwards.

Gayle said she doesn’t know where her family will go. Away from the river this time.

“I have no idea,” she said, looking over what used to be her yard. She pointed out a mailbox her husband had made, which survived the storm. “We love the water. We love the water.”

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @VeraMBergen