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City working feverishly to get water service restored

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By Chris Cox
Published Oct. 5, 2015

Melissa Gentry isn’t sure how many water main breaks have occurred since catastrophic floods sent chaos through Columbia over the weekend.

The city’s assistant city manager knows of at least 12, but with so many of them still underwater that number is sure to rise in the coming days. And getting to those breaks still remains a problem, meaning portions of Columbia will be stuck with no water, low pressure or temporarily lose the water they currently have.

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“We can’t get to them,” Gentry said. “The roads are washed out. In addition to trying to navigate the waters, we’re navigating road collapses. Just the worst conditions you can think of.”

Gentry said officials discovered a breach in the Columbia Canal over Sunday night about 60 feet in width. Late Monday afternoon, residents of along Overcreek Road from Forest Drive to Percival Road underwent a mandatory evacuation after a nearby dam bridge breached.

“I understand things will get worse before they get better,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “Finally the rains have stopped. We’re going to have to deal with the floods, we’re going to continue to work and improve and repair our infrastructure here in the city roads, water, sewer, all the above. Eventually the floods will abate but then we have to assess the damage.

“I anticipate that damage will be the billions of dollars. We’re going to have to work to rebuild. Some people’s lives as they know them will never be the same.”

The main task is to stabilize the Columbia Canal with boulders and sand bags over the next few days, though it is not an immediate fix.

Contractor Lockhart Power Company, which runs the hydro plant, is on site with city engineers on site. The plant is operating at normal capacity – about 60 million gallons per day – and the pressure is at least temporarily back to normal. Elsewhere, the Lake Murray plant is in full operation, as is the wastewater treatment plant, though the latter was inundated with storm water Sunday night.

Breaks must be prepared in dry conditions, and they must be isolated before work can begin. (As breaks continue to be repaired, residents with water may sporadically lose them are they are closed off for repairs.) From there, piping is installed, fittings are done before a connection is made, before disinfecting, backfilling and stabilizing completed the process.

“Any large pipes are going to be our priority,” Gentry said. “We’re currently still assessing that. Anything 12 inches or larger is priority.”

To get residents the water they need, city officials are setting up several distribution centers Tuesday morning. Approximately 55 tractor trailers of water carrying what city manager Teresa Wilson believes totals 350,000 bottles.

Those locations, open from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., will be run by the National Guard at the following locations: Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, 1101 Lincoln St.; Wal-Mart, 5424 Forest Drive; Dutch Square Mall, 421 Bush River Road; the Midlands Shopping Center at Two Notch and Covenant roads, and corner of Landmark and Forest drives near Richland Fashion Mall.

Richland County will also continue operating its distribution sites during the same hours at Lower Richland High School and Landmark Square on Garners Ferry Road.

Gentry said she did not know how many residents were currently without power, as the number evolves from minute to minute.

Water pressure has been restored to downtown hospitals, though they still received help from firefighters that both Benjamin and Gov. Nikki Haley called “heroes.”

“They worked all night long to get the bulk water over to the hospitals so the hospitals didn’t have to go down,” Haley said. “If you really want to talk about the work and greatness of South Carolina, it was the Columbia Fire Department that really said they were going to try to make sure that happened.”

Reach Chris Cox at 803-726-7545 or on Twitter @chrisbcox.

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