COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – South Carolina was expecting sunshine Tuesday after days of inundation, but it will still take weeks for the state to return to normal after being pummeled by a historic rainstorm.
Even as the rain tapered off, officials warned of the likelihood of new evacuations – such as one ordered Monday afternoon in one of two towns east of downtown Columbia where two dams were breached.
The governor warned communities downstream that a mass of water was working its way through waterways toward the low-lying coast – bringing the potential for more flooding and more displaced residents.
“This is not over. Just because the rain stops does not mean that we are out of the woods,” Gov. Nikki Haley said Monday.
South Carolina’s geography and poor spending on infrastructure left several town and cities like islands after roads washed out and creeks topped bridges.
One of those cut-off communities was Manning, the county seat of Clarendon County, about 60 miles southeast of Columbia.
“I fear the worst is to come. We have a power substation under water. No telling when that thing gets fixed,” Clarendon County Sheriff Randy Garrett said.
At least 10 weather-related deaths in South Carolina and two in North Carolina were blamed on the vast rainstorm, including those of five people who drowned in their cars in Columbia alone. A solid week of rainfall also sent about 1,000 to shelters and left about 40,000 without drinkable water.
Much-feared Hurricane Joaquin missed the East Coast, but fueled what experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called a “fire hose” of tropical moisture that aimed directly at the state. By Monday, the heaviest rains had moved into the mid-Atlantic states, but not before making history in South Carolina.
The 16.6 inches of rain that fell at Gills Creek near downtown Columbia on Sunday made for one of the rainiest days recorded at a U.S. weather station in more than 16 years.
John Shelton of the U.S. Geological Survey says flooding can be a concern for any urban area, with an abundance of concrete covering soil that would otherwise act as a sponge for excessive rains.
But the multitude of waterways in Columbia also makes the city a prime target for flooding, as rainwater seeking to flow into a creek or river gets waylaid on the city’s roadways.
“The fact is that we’re getting six months’ worth of rain in two days that’s falling in an urbanized area,” Shelton said. “This was kind of the perfect storm.”
The governor has said the deluge is the kind of storm seen only once in 1,000 years. She said 550 roads and bridges were closed across the state. All will have to be checked for structural integrity, which could take weeks or longer.
Complicating the problem is that the infrastructure was already in bad shape in places. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 1,048 of the 9,275 bridges were structurally deficient before this storm.
The flooding forced hundreds of weekend rescues and threatened the drinking water supply for Columbia, with officials warning some could be without potable water for days because of water main breaks. The capital city told all 375,000 of its water customers to boil water before drinking.
Officials brought in bottled water and portable restrooms for the 31,000 students at the University of South Carolina, and firefighters used a half-dozen trucks and pumps to ferry hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital.
In another downstream area, Lake City, the flooding left a brown four-door sedan bobbing with its hood angled down at the road leading to Lake City High School, the site of a Red Cross shelter that housed more than 100 people Monday. Lisa Singletary, 34, trudged past the waterlogged car through water about 4 feet deep to reach the shelter after her sister’s ground-floor apartment was inundated.
Singletary grabbed her three children, ages 1, 4 and 16, and her sister’s three children, ages 9 to 18, and pushed through the grimy water after sunset Sunday, she said. She and her sister, Mary Singletary, then returned for everything they could carry.
“We had to really wade in the water. … We had to hold the kids up from really getting wet and everything,” said Singletary, who was visiting for the weekend from nearby Johnsonville.
The two women filled plastic trash bags with “toothpaste, toothbrush, wash cloths, towels, blankets, pillows, clothes, socks, shoes,” Singletary said. “We brought everything that we could have brought.”
Back in the Columbia area, James Shirer saw the dam along Rockyford Lake in the town of Forest Acres fail Monday, causing the 22-acre lake to drain in 10 to 15 minutes.
“It just poured out,” Shirer said.
The lakes and ponds got so high, the dams couldn’t take it anymore, Shirer said. Speaking of the rains, he said, “They’ve wrecked the dams; they’ve ruined all of the bridges. This one lake has already gone from topping over this bridge to where it’s emptying out.”
As he spoke, water rushed through where the dam once was and a military helicopter circled overhead.
“It’s devastating for Columbia,” he said. “It’s one of the worst things we’ve seen.”
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina; Mitch Weiss in Greenville, South Carolina; Susanne M. Schafer in Columbia; Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina; Meg Kinnard in Blythewood, South Carolina; Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C.; and Jay Reeves in Columbia.