A “wall of water” moving eastward across the storm-wracked South Carolina could cause more flooding Tuesday in the wake of what meteorologists are calling the worst weather disaster to hit the state since Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
The sweep of the damage is staggering – from Columbia east for more than 100 miles to Charleston and Myrtle Beach, and spreading.
Flash flood warnings will continue through midweek for much of the worst-hit areas. More than 2 feet of rain fell on parts of Columbia and the Lowcountry. Businesses and schools were closed in Orangeburg on Monday. Mandatory evacuations and curfews were ordered as floodwaters swept into homes, washed cars from roadways or punched holes in dams.
Columbia businessman and native Stuart Hope said Monday that there is water in his hometown where he’s never seen it before.
Even weather experts were stunned by the strength and size of the storm, particularly when a hurricane was not directly involved.
“I have never seen rainfall this intense, in this large of an area and this short of a period,” said Elliot Abrams, chief meteorologist for AccuWeather.
Gov. Nikki Haley said at a noon news conference that 550 bridges and roads remained closed Monday. The list will change quickly, she said, as the floodwaters move east from the Upstate areas of Greenville-Spartanburg, through Columbia and the Midlands, and on toward the coast. Further evacuations of low-lying areas are likely, she said.
Across the state, hundreds of miles of roads have been closed, including a 70-mile stretch of Interstate 95 – from Florence to east of Orangeburg – that runs north and south near the coast. And local leaders in many areas ordered curfews to keep motorists from driving after dark. Portions of Columbia’s interstates and thoroughfares were reopening Monday, but state officials urged caution for drivers passing through the flooding areas.
Statewide, at least nine deaths have been linked to the storm.
The ninth: a 56-year-old man who drove around a barricade on a flooded road on Sunday night in Lugoff, northeast of Columbia. Someone called 911 around 10 p.m. after hearing a passenger in the car screaming for help. A 28-year-old woman managed to climb out through a window and get on top of the car. A firefighter with a tether waded into several feet of water to reach her.
Later, rescuers recovered the body of McArthur Woods from the submerged car.
The National Weather Service reported “mind-boggling” rainfall totals in areas already saturated by steady precipitation through much of last week.
Much heavier rains began falling Saturday. In all, some 20 inches fell in parts of metro Columbia, and the city’s airport recorded its highest ever one-day total of precipitation.
The Congaree River in Columbia crested past 30 feet for the first time in 79 years. Flood stage for the Congaree is 19 feet; at 6 p.m. Monday, the river was still over 28 feet.
In Mount Pleasant, north of Charleston, more than 24 inches fell over a three- of four-day period during the slow-moving storm.
“We are at a 1,000-year level of rain,” Haley said Sunday. “That’s how big this is.”
Failing dams and evacuations
The city of Columbia shut off water around midday Sunday. As of noon Monday, some 40,000 South Carolinians were dealing with contaminated drinking water or no water at all, Haley said.
Floodwaters left a 50-foot gash in an earthen dike on the Columbia Canal near the city’s water-treatment plant, according to The (Columbia) State newspaper. The canal supplies drinking water for about half the city’s water customers, more than 185,000 in all.
On Columbia’s eastern outskirts, rising waters also destroyed an earthen dam at Semmes Lake on Fort Jackson, according to photographs posted on social media.
Some of the worst flooding in the city flanked Gills Creek, a watershed that cuts through low-income areas and affluent neighborhoods alike. By midafternoon, as many as nine dams for neighborhood lakes in the watershed had failed while water was flowing over the tops of others, said Pete Brooks, a public information spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Division.
Hope said he has friends in the city’s Lake Catherine neighborhood with the first floors of their homes inundated.
After floodwaters crested the Overcreek Bridge dam in the Forest Acres neighborhood on Monday afternoon, police began evacuating residents downstream, the State reported.
If the dam fails, “it’s going to unload about 22 acres of water,” said state Rep. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who was working with police on the evacuation plans.
Other parts of the city aren’t expected to get water service restored until midweek or later. “I can’t say when this will end,” Columbia utility director Joey Jaco told The State. “We hope to see (water) pressure improvements today. We already see better pressure in some areas.”
Some 1,300 National Guard troops were helping with search and rescue missions throughout Columbia. Another 7,000 Guard members remained on alert, Haley said.
President Barack Obama already has approved federal disaster relief for the state, and Haley has declared a statewide disaster area.
The State reported that fast-water rescue teams remained deployed around the greater Columbia area Monday morning. More than 150 rescues already have taken place, Haley said.
Keeping water clean
Portable toilets were placed around the residence halls of the University of South Carolina – which canceled classes Monday – and a boil-water advisory remains in effect throughout much of the state’s largest city. West Columbia lifted its boil advisory midday Monday.
Clean water remained on short supply – to the USC campus, three Columbia hospitals, and thousands of homes and businesses. Emergency water shipments were sent to hospitals overnight. Four water-distribution centers were expected to be set up around Columbia by Monday afternoon. Six more were to open Tuesday, the governor said. Wal-Mart has also donated 80,000 bottles of clean water for use in needy areas.
More than 25,000 electrical customers were still without power as of 8 a.m., the State said.
In Conway, near Myrtle Beach, high-water vehicles were searching Monday morning for drivers stranded along flooded roads.
In Charleston, floodwaters receded some Monday after the record rains and high tides over the weekend flooded streets and neighborhoods in the historic city. Schools and businesses remained closed.
Seventy-five miles away, police began ordering mandatory evacuations Sunday in flooded Kingstree, S.C., after the Black River left its banks, said Henry Carraway, a member of the town’s water department. He said he hasn’t seen water this high since his childhood in the early 1970s.
Meteorologists say portions of the state haven’t seen such rainfall totals since 1989 when Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm, mauled the coast and much of the Carolinas with 100-plus mph winds and torrential rains.
While rain slowed down across South Carolina on Monday, river levels are expected to rise as the floodwaters move east. Haley said new roads and bridges could become impassable.
The Associated Press contributed.