Battered Cheraw gets help from Columbia as residents dig out from hurricane

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Sweat dripped from Dennis Pressley’s forehead as he picked up limbs and raked leaves that fell in his yard when Hurricane Florence blustered through last weekend.

“I’ve been in all kind of weather, but that was a good one,’’ Pressley said of the storm. “All anyone is doing now is cleaning up. ‘’

For the first time since last week, the sun shone brightly Tuesday in this small town of 6,000, bringing residents like Pressley from their homes and businesses to begin attacking the mess left by the worst storm many residents can remember.

City sanitation crews hauled truckloads of debris from neighborhoods, public works employees tried to fix a sinkhole that had formed downtown, and utilities officials worked with the city of Columbia to restore water service to industries.

At the edge of town, a federal contractor surveyed a city park that had been undergoing a government-paid pollution cleanup before the hurricane hit. Highway workers reopened some roads, although others remained closed because of high water.

Cheraw’s efforts came the same day the Great Pee Dee River crested and two days after tributaries of the muddy river overflowed, sending area residents fleeing from their creekside homes.

The Great Pee Dee, which reached the third highest level ever recorded at Cheraw, is expected to rise farther downstream later this week as rainfall from Florence continues to move toward Georgetown on the S.C. coast. River levels on the Great Pee Dee reached 46.6 feet before dawn Tuesday in Cheraw, 15 feet above flood stage.

However, the Great Pee Dee’s flooding so far has been less of a problem in Cheraw than the flash floods and creek flooding that occurred over the weekend, as well as some wind damage that brought down limbs in the tree-canopied city.

Cheraw, a historic town near the North Carolina border, was among the S.C. communities that suffered mightily after Hurricane Florence, a wide storm that frightened millions of Carolinas residents, hit the coast and lumbered inland.

Repairing the damage in Cheraw is expected to cost millions of dollars, a sum that will strain the city unless it gets federal or state help.

Early estimates show Chesterfield County had sustained $700,000 in damage, but Emergency Management director Harold Hainey said that only will be a fraction of the eventual cost. Contractors are expected to begin a more formal damage assessment, he said.

While moving into a recovery mode, emergency officials remained on guard Tuesday. State and federal law enforcement teams patrolled the area, looking for people who lived in flooding hot spots near U.S. 52, Hainey said. Over the weekend, law enforcement officers rescued about 40 people, Sheriff Jay Brooks said.

“There are about 50 people in the immediate area who need to evacuate, just to be on the safe side,’’ Hainey said Tuesday morning.

The biggest task facing Cheraw Tuesday was restoring its drinking water system. That system was unable to supply water for major industries after the city’s main water supply pipe broke during the storm over the weekend, said Kenny Grantham, co-director of Cheraw’s water and sewer system.

“We can supply water to residential customers, but we can’t supply enough to run industry,’’ Grantham said. “We are working with the city of Columbia and the (U.S.) Army Corps of Engineers to get some pumps in so we can pump water from the river and into our pond to keep it filled.

“We’re trying our best to keep water in that pond,’’ Grantham said. “The city of Columbia has offered help, and they have the resources.’’

Clint Shealy, Columbia’s assistant city manager for water services, said the pumps and extra pipe may be delivered as soon as Wednesday. The city sometimes helps out other governments with pipes and equipment. But, he added, “This is probably the most critical (need) we’ve encountered in some time.’

The project involves putting a temporary pipe in the Great Pee Dee and pumping water from the river to a small pond. Water then would be distributed from the pond to industries. The pond is the city’s backup water supply, but does not hold enough water now to supply homes and businesses at the same time.

One issue being watched was the status of a federal cleanup at a park along Huckleberry Branch, a creek contaminated by an industrial plant years ago.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had doing cleanup work in the area before Hurricane Florence swamped Cheraw with nearly two feet of rain. The contaminated park was under water Tuesday, although residents said the water levels were down from Monday. The EPA was expected on the scene, perhaps by late week, an official told The State.

For residents like Pressley, it is time to move on and return Cheraw to normal.

The question is when.

“Roads are washed out. Houses have got water in them. All that has to be taken care of,’’ Pressley said. “It could be a month to get everybody back to where they need to be – at least that long.’’