When the phone at the town hall in Nichols, S.C. rings, callers hear a message about how “normal town operations have been suspended” until further notice. A female voice instructs callers how best to reach the town’s officials in the meantime, ending her message with a reminder to residents that “We are Nichols strong.”
The tiny town, population 400, sitting 120 miles southeast of the state’s capital city of Columbia, was decimated in the early morning hours of Oct. 10, 2016, when floodwaters stemming from Hurricane Matthew rolled through, swelling the Lumber River to 20 feet above normal.
More than three months later, the town is still struggling to get back on its feet. Many residents have not been able to return to their homes; all 22 of the town’s businesses were flooded. Almost all 261 homes in Nichols were deemed uninhabitable. A toxic soup of water, fuel, fertilizer and sewage settled in homes for more than a week before the waters began to recede. Then, black mold took hold of the structures in the town.
As in many small towns, the heartbeat of Nichols is its volunteer fire company — particularly in the face of disaster. But after Hurricane Matthew, the Nichols Fire Department’s two engines were buried in mud. Air tanks — crucial equipment in a fire — floated away on the swollen river.
Delaware, which has been spared a major hit by a hurricane for decades, once again dodged the wrath of Matthew. Upon hearing of the needs in South Carolina, one upstate department rolled into action to help its southern brethren. Wilmington Manor Fire Department decided to donate a 1987 Pierce Arrow fire engine, completely outfitted and ready to be put into action.
“It was a reserve engine that laid around and laid around,” said Wilmington Manor Fire Chief Stephen Maichle. “We decided we needed to do something with this engine to help somebody,” Maichle said.
Through connections between fire companies in Delaware, members of the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company learned of the fire engine donation and jumped on the bandwagon to help. As it turns out, the Bethany department had just received 80 new air packs, thanks to a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant they had received.
“They were outdated, but still better than what a lot of companies have,” Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company Chief Brian Martin said.
So, in December, when the members of the Wilmington Manor company rolled south with the “new” engine for Nichols, they made a stop in Bethany Beach, where they picked up 10 air packs for the Nichols firefighters.
Along with donations of additional equipment, such as hoses, from some other Delaware fire departments, Martin said, “We pretty much got [the Nichols fire department] back up and running, which is good.”