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Looking back: One week after Columbia’s historic flood

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Columbia Flooding.  Friendly neighbors use a canoe to help a resident of Hampton Park Apartments get some of his possessions to safety.    (Photo by Perry Baker)
After a slight break in the rain on Sunday, Oct. 4, people found themselves having to paddle to safety to escape the flooding. (Photo/Perry Baker Photography)


By Chris Cox
Published Oct. 12, 2015

From the Oct. 12 – Oct. 25 issue of the Columbia Regional Business Report

Residents of Hampton Greene Apartments on Gills Creek Parkway sat high atop their complex in the dark, without water or power, occasionally peering out their windows to get a glimpse at the powerful onslaught unfolding before them.

Down the hill, neighbors’ apartments began to flood as vehicles played bumper cars in the parking lot, some winding up yards behind the building next to the tennis courts. These Columbia citizens were trapped overnight in their complex, as Gills Creek became a rolling river down to Rosewood and Garners Ferry Road, where businesses like Subway and Liberty Income Tax underwent massive damage, cars overturned and garbage dumpsters floated down the street like rubber ducks in a bathtub.

“This is a disaster,” said John Whitaker, who was staying with a friend at the complex. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

These Midlands residents at the epicenter of the storms were merely one group of thousands others just like them, as catastrophic storms and flooding rocked the Midlands last week. The natural disaster has currently left 19 citizens dead, including nine in the Midlands, and what could ultimately be billions of dollars in damage, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said.

“I understand things will get worse before they get better,” he said on Oct. 5, a day later, flanked by city and county officials as the rain continued to fall outside. “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.”

Gov. Nikki Haley said the weather event, which was a combination of a storm system and moisture from Hurricane Joaquin, might happen once every 1,000 years. In all, the Oct. 4 rainfall set a 128-year record for Columbia, the National Weather Service said, with nearly 20 inches falling in certain sections of the city.

In all, the torrential downpour, which fell without relief for most of four straight days, left upwards of 26,000 South Carolina customers without power and more than 130,000 Columbia residents without water, Benjamin said. To combat the disaster, more than 50 tractor trailers were dispatched to 10 water distribution centers across the Midlands as residents desperately clamored for safe water – many retail stores quickly ran out as long lines merely grew longer – and multiple shelters were established to aid those who had been evacuated or lost their homes entirely.

Curfews were imposed, schools and business were shut down and more than 550 roads and bridges closed, including at one point more than 70 miles of Interstate 95.

“This is not over just because the rain stops,” Haley said. “It does not mean that we are out of the woods.”

Sunny skies

On Tuesday, Oct. 7, the sun came out. For the first time in 13 days.

Locals returned to work that morning, most undoubtedly happy to finally wear sunglasses. Fast food restaurants, though many had closed their inside dining rooms, welcomed long wraparound lines through the drive-thru. No soft drinks, though. The Midlands’ boil water advisory was still in effect.

Things returned to normal as much as they could for Columbia. But normal was still a long way off. Road collapses kept many folks at home, including workers at Amazon, and the constant threat of dam breaks lingered throughout the week.

At least 12 breaks were discovered by the immediate day after, assistant city manager Melissa Gentry said, though with so many still under water the number was inevitably going to rise. The most notable break was at the Columbia Canal, wear a massive 60-foot tear sent officials scrambling to make repairs.

Boulders and sand bags were used to stabilize the canal to get it operating at normal capacity, about 60 million gallons per day. As work continues on all breaks, residents were warned they may temporarily lose any water they had in order to begin fixes. Last week, two S.C. National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopters airlifted equipment and materials to reinforce to the canal.

Exactly 21 dam failures have been reported to fail across the state, 14 of which were in Richland County. The state continued to monitor a number of additional dams for structural integrity.

A lack of pressure caused by a series of breaks of water mains required firefighters to transport bulk water to Palmetto Health Baptist. The water was necessary to keep the hospital’s chiller systems, which include the air-conditioner and refrigerators, operating. Over the weekend, water finally became drinkable at both Palmetto Health Richland and Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital.

“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.”

While Midlands took the brunt of the initial impact, Haley’s attention soon turned to Lowcountry locations were water was expected to head. Kingstree was evacuated, and Conway, Georgetown, Jamestown and Effingham were among the other towns expected to see possible water troubles as well.

Business impact, what’s ahead

Haley did not want to speculate on what the damage totals would be. To her, the dollar amount on a check wasn’t relevant.

“I understand the interest and urgency to know what the cost and number will actually be,” she said. “We’re not going to stop until we get everything we need back up and fixed again. That could be ‘X’ amount of dollars. That’s not my concern right now.”

As water began to recede, Haley took to the skies to survey damage done to the Midlands area. The site welcoming her was troublesome.

“What I saw was disturbing,” she said. “It is hard to look at the loss that we’re going to have. But everything will be OK.”

People across the country have donated through the Red Cross and United Way, among countless other charitable organizations, and the state received ample water as the need for it grew.

Some businesses will nevertheless be slow to recover. Rosewood Crossing, Bright-Meyers’ 98,100-square-foot retail redevelopment project anchored by Marshalls, PetSmart, and Michaels, was hit hard. Passers-by noted clothes with tags still on them strung out in the new parking lot. The building housing Liberty Income Tax and Title Max offices collapsed and several surrounding stores were inaccessible days later as utility workers continued repair efforts to the roadway.

Elsewhere, the area at Trenholm Road and Forest Drive also was hit hard, claiming a frame store, pizza parlor and several shops at Forest Lake Shopping Center.

Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads also were affected. Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay said three lines – Charlotte to Columbia, Columbia to Charleston and Columbia to Spartanburg – were hit the hardest, and were down for some time. CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay said several branch lines and at least two major lines were impacted for the storms.

“We understand people have to live their lives, they have to conduct commerce,” Benjamin said. “People need jobs and larger corporations may be able to pay people who don’t show up, but that’s very difficult for small businesses.”

Benjamin said the city will pursue every avenue to help owners get any help they can, whether it be flood insurance or assistance from the Small Business Administration. The Department of Employment and Workforce also made available Disaster Unemployment Assistance to residents in eight counties who became unemployed as a result of the disaster.

“We’re going to be very aggressive,” Benjamin said. “FEMA triggers different insurance opportunities for residents and commercial businesses. We will leave no stone unturned.”

It will be some time before things settle down to the way they were. And there is no telling what it will take to get there. But Haley is confident for her state’s trek to get there.

“South Carolina has once again proven we are strong and resilient,” Haley said. “(But) we are still in prayer mode.”

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

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