COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA – The Carolinas saw sunshine Tuesday after days of inundation, but it could take weeks to recover from being pummeled by a historic rainstorm that caused widespread flooding and 16 deaths.
Tuesday was the first completely dry day in Columbia, South Carolina’s capital, since Sept. 24, but officials warned that new evacuations could be ordered as the huge mass of water flows toward the sea, threatening dams and displacing residents along the way.
“God smiled on South Carolina because the sun is out. That is a good sign, but … we still have to be cautious,” Gov. Nikki Haley said Tuesday after taking an aerial tour. “What I saw was disturbing.”
“We are going to be extremely careful. We are watching this minute by minute,” she said.
At least 14 weather-related deaths in South Carolina and two in North Carolina were blamed on the vast rainstorm. Six people drowned in their cars in Columbia alone, and several died after driving around safety barriers onto flooded roads.
Flooding is a concern for any urban area, where concrete covers soil that would otherwise act as a sponge in heavy rain. But the multitude of waterways in Columbia — where the Broad and Saluda rivers come together to form the Congaree — made the city a prime target.
Water distribution remained a key problem Tuesday across much of the state. In Columbia, as many as 40,000 homes lacked drinking water, and the rest of the city’s 375,000 customers were told to boil water before using it for drinking or cooking, an order that Mayor Steve Benjamin said will likely be in effect for “quite some time.”
Nearly 500 roads and bridges were still closed Tuesday morning, including a 90-mile (150-km) stretch of Interstate 95, the state Department of Transportation said.
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 (42 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.
“The fact is that we’re getting six months’ worth of rain in two days that’s falling in an urbanized area,” said John Shelton of the U.S. Geological Survey. “This was kind of the perfect storm.”