World

Floodwaters overwhelm South Carolina dams after week of deadly 'fire hose' downpours

AP

After a week of steady rain, thousands of South Carolina residents faced the prospect of going days without running water, and with waterlogged dams overflowing, bridges collapsing, hundreds of roads inundated and floodwaters rolling down to the coast, the southern state on Monday was anything but done with the disaster.

“This is a Hugo-level event,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, head of the South Carolina National Guard, referring to the September 1989 hurricane that devastated Charleston. “We didn’t see this level of erosion in Hugo. … This water doesn’t fool around.”

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. A solid week of rainfall killed at least 102 people, sent about 1,000 to shelters and left about 40,000 without drinkable water. Two more people people died in North Carolina.

One of latest to die was McArthur Woods, 56, who drove around a barricade and drowned Sunday night. His passenger managed to climb on top of the sedan, which stalled in the rushing water. A firefighter rescued her after someone heard her screams.

“She came out the window. How she got on top of the car and stayed there like she did with that water— there’s a good Lord,” Kershaw County Coroner David West said.

By Monday, the heaviest rains had moved into the mid-Atlantic states. Along the Jersey Shore, some beaches devastated by Superstorm Sandy three years ago lost most of their sand to the wind, rain and high surf.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley warned citizens to remain careful as a “wave” of water swelled downstream and dams had to be opened to prevent catastrophic failures above low-lying neighborhoods near the capital.

“South Carolina has gone through a storm of historic proportions,” Haley said. “Just because the rain stops, does not mean that we are out of the woods.”

Indeed, shortly after the governor’s news conference, authorities evacuated an area on the northeast side of Columbia after a dam on Rockyford Lake burst around 2 p.m. Monday.

James Shirer lives in the area and said he saw the dam fail and a 22-acre (9-hectare) lake drain in 10 to 15 minutes.

The 16.6 inches (42.16 cm) 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.

An Associated Press reporter surveying the scene by helicopter saw the entire eastern side of the capital city awash in floodwater. Neither trailer parks nor upscale neighborhoods were spared: One mansion’s swimming pool was filled with a yellowish broth.

Some 550 roads and bridges remained closed on Monday, including nearly 75 mile (120 km) of Interstate 95, the main link from the Southeast U.S. to the Northwest. The governor said they will need close inspection to ensure they’re safe.

Some towns were entirely cut off. About 60 miles (100 km) southeast of the capital, all four roads leading into the county seat of Manning were closed, isolating 4,000 people. Many smaller communities in Clarendon County are in a similar predicament, Sheriff Randy Garrett said.

“I’m the sheriff of a bunch of islands,” Garrett said.

The National Guard’s Blackhawk helicopters were the best — and only — way to reach some places, said Livingston.

Safe water, however, was in short supply: In Columbia, firefighters used a half-dozen trucks and pumps to ferry hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital.