At the age of 6, Fred Howell waded into knee-deep floodwater near Mineral Springs Church.
A photographer snapped a picture of him standing next to his sister, and the image eventually wound up on the cover of a Conway National Bank calendar. That flood was the worst he ever saw, then or since. It was 1945.
“[But] it didn’t make us leave home,” said Howell, who will turn 80 next month and has spent all of his eight decades in the Little Lamb Road area of Horry County.
Hurricane Florence’s coming flood hasn’t forced him off his farm yet. Forecasters predict the flood will reach the nearby Bucksport community over the next week, and flood maps developed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources show Howell’s entire 100-plus acres covered by water.
Howell lives about five miles from the Bucksport Marina. County officials issued an evacuation warning for the Bucksport area Wednesday night. They cleared out the Bucksport shelter at the James R. Frazier Recreation Center and moved evacuees to Whittemore Park Middle School in Conway. Late Thursday afternoon, the county delivered sand bags to Bucksport for flood preparation. About 12,000 sandbags are being dropped off for the community.
Howell's biggest threat, however, comes not from the Waccamaw River to the east but from the Great Pee Dee River to the south. That river has flooded back toward his property before. Still, Howell plans to stay. He said an Horry County engineer who examined his property Thursday told him he thought the water would be level with the road in front of his home, though he couldn't be sure.
“He said it might not get that much or it might get more,” he said. “You don’t know.”
County officials have told Bucksport area residents that if they stay in their homes and they flood, it could take a rescue boat to get them out. And even if the water doesn’t flood their houses, the road closures could still shut them off from society — for weeks. County staff gave a similar message to people in the Longs community earlier in the week.
“It’s not like an overnight thing,” said Kelly Moore, the county’s spokeswoman. “Some projections are up to 14 days. And that’s a long time to go in isolation. Hopefully, that doesn’t turn out to be the case, but you can’t ignore the projections. … We’re really just trying to get people to prepare.”
The difficulty in making flood projections is that no one is exactly sure how bad the flooding will be. The estimates are updated daily with the latest models, and those results fluctuate.
“There’s too many variables. We’re talking about levels of water we haven’t seen,” said Steve Gosnell, the county’s assistant administrator over infrastructure and regulation. “There’s nothing you can produce that [says] ‘OK, This is where it’s going to come to in this storm. … It’s kind of like the map showing the route that the hurricane was going to take. You project it out what you think’s going to happen based on the information you have. And then the next day, you have more information and you kind of narrow down the probability."
Because of the uncertainty, the county opted to release a map of Hurricane Matthew’s flooding as a guide for residents. Their message was that if people flooded during Hurricane Matthew, which set the high mark for the Waccamaw in 2016, then they would likely flood again. Forecasters expect a crest several feet higher on the river. It will reach Matthew's flooding level on Saturday.
"After today, when it gets to the threshold of Matthew, now we're in uncharted territory," said Randy Webster, the county's emergency management director. "I know, just like us, everybody wants answers to questions. … But we don't have them."
Webster said the country's flooding experts are advising his team. However, because county officials can't provide the public with answers quickly enough, people are coming up with their own theories, which aren't based on research.
"I know that feeds the fury of rumor and all that stuff," he said. "I don't like operating that way. I like to give definitive answers to questions, but we just can't."
County officials have told people that if they were close to flooding last time, they should seek higher ground now.
While the county chose to release the Matthew map, the city of Conway developed its own map with projections that the river would be 4 feet higher than it was with Matthew. City officials even went door to door, trying to warn 944 property owners on the map that this flood could impact them.
City administrator Adam Emrick said city leaders are trying to be careful because, like the county, they’re not sure the level of impact at each location. For some residents, it could simply be water in the yard. Others could see deep flooding in their homes.
The most dire projections came from DNR. That agency’s map allows residents to enter an address and see the flood potential for a specific property. But even that map, which was prepared as a worst case scenario guide for local officials, is simply an estimate.
The DNR map generated confusion because some projections showed different impacts for certain neighborhoods than the one produced by Conway. After many residents began sharing DNR’s interactive flood map on social media Thursday, the agency issued a news release cautioning them from expecting too much from the program. They even said people should not rely on the map to make evacuation or property care decisions. Instead, they encouraged them to listen to evacuation warnings from local officials.
“It is very important for people viewing this online tool to understand that this map was created to assist local and state emergency management officials and GIS specialists with planning and preparation for potential flooding in their jurisdictions,” the release said. “The maps produced by the Flood Approximation tool represent broad-scale approximations of potential flooding only and are not intended for site specific or local predictions or forecasting.”
So how should people prepare?
Although there is some uncertainty, officials know there is too much water for areas such as Bucksport, Longs and North Conway to be spared. Some places have already seen flash flooding what was left of Hurricane Florence. County officials have been sending staff to warn those residents and sending out other alerts through their E911 system as well.
Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught said county officials project that if the most destructive situation materializes, 21,000 people could be displaced and authorities would have to find ways to feed and shelter many of them.
However, he said leaders do have a “catastrophic plan” for the worst case situation, where all major thoroughfares on the county border are flooded. The plan includes steps built in to address the gravest disaster.
"We've had these plans in place all along," he said. "It's like having a book. You just open different chapters of the book based on what the situation happens to be."
Howell knows about the flood maps. He’s weathered many storms and he understands it’s hard to predict what will happen. Hurricane Hazel in 1954 spared his community flood problems but the storm’s fierce winds knocked over many trees. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd sent water lapping at the second step of his mobile home. But Hurricane Matthew was mostly a non-event for him.
“Matthew didn’t even come up nowhere close to me now,” he said. “Back yonder, it come up in the swamp a little bit in the field back there.”
That doesn’t mean he’s complacent. As a precaution, he’s moving his 15 beef cattle and his horse to higher ground. He’s lifting his hay bales onto trailers to keep them out of the flood.
He understands preparation.
In some ways, Howell is the community’s caretaker. When Florence was rolling in, he set up eight generators. Some were for people who didn’t have one. He put another at Little Lamb Church in case anyone needed shelter there and the power went out. His mother donated the land for the church. She also took out a mortgage to build it.
Despite the county’s warnings, Howell pointed out that forecastst with Hurricane Florence changed dramatically as the storm got closer. He's trying to remain optimistic.
“They was wrong with the hurricane,” he said. “So I’m hoping they’ll be wrong with this.”