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Families adapt to S.C. flooding, prepare for more

Flooding damage and recovery scenes in Columbia, South Carolina

Flooding damage and recovery scenes from throughout Columbia, SC on Monday, October 5, 2015.
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Flooding damage and recovery scenes from throughout Columbia, SC on Monday, October 5, 2015.

Scott Cowen hastily hauled an oscillating fan and a bucket of towels from his green Honda CR-V. Just in case flood waters entered his house, Cowen wanted tools on hand to clean up.

Back and forth, trudging through the soggy mess that was now his front lawn, the 49-year-old Cowen placed a shop vacuum for suctioning water inside the yellow brick and vinyl home he shares with wife, Janice, and their 17-year-old daughter Bridget.

Preparation was key Monday in the eerily-quiet neighborhood clustered off Beltline Drive, a main drag that runs through the small city of Forest Acres. Fearing another dam would break, authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation of the area, ushering families to the nearby A.C. Flora High School for emergency shelter.

The Cowens learned they were not included in that order, despite living less than a mile from where parts of Beltline Drive’s sidewalk collapsed, knocking down utility poles and power lines.

“Saturday night, we went to bed and everything was fine,” Cowen said.

Then, the family woke up Sunday morning. The tributary to Gills Creek, which runs parallel to their backyard, had risen above its banks. The water submerged a 4-foot-tall garden statue and concealed parts of a gazebo. Hurricane-force winds blew a portion of a once-intact deck into a tree. Some of his property floated in his neighbor’s yard.

“We were trapped in here,” Cowen said.

The family lost power at 10 a.m., and still had none by 4 p.m. Monday. Still, the Cowens count themselves among the fortunate. No water entered their home.

His parents, whose downstairs flooded with up to 2 inches of water, weren’t so lucky: “We had to rip up all the flooring so it wouldn’t mildew.”

Cowen and his family moved to their neighborhood 10 years ago. No matter what else the rain brings, they plan to stay: “Hopefully, it won’t happen again for another 500 years.”

There was less assurance at the makeshift shelter less than a mile away. Family after family drifted inside the auditorium. Some of them cradled infants and pets; others, pillows, blankets and towels.

Scores of volunteers brought in diapers, bottled water, toothpaste, deodorant and granola bars. Then, with law enforcement and the National Guard, they unloaded American Red Cross trucks packed with cots and blankets.

Inside the shelter, there was angst. Fear. Regret.

Bett Williams, 49, stood outside with her 9-year-old son Stowe.

Their home was untouched by the worst of the flood, Williams said. Some neighbors lost everything.

She’s not sure what Tuesday morning will bring. But she is sure of this: She wishes she remembered to bring the family photos.

Stowe was worried, too. His LEGOS and stuffed animals were back home.

“I’m a little worried but I think that we’ll be all right,” the boy said. “I feel bad for all the people who” lost their homes.

Christopher Robinson’s home fared well in the weekend storm. But now’s he not too sure what will happen next. When he heard the order to evacuate, he grabbed his neighbor and her granddaughter and drove to the shelter. When they got there, they rifled through boxes and bags of extra clothes.

“It’s a big change (for) everybody’s life,” said Robinson, 58. “You only have a few minutes to get away.”

He was unsure how long evacuees would have to stay at the shelter, and he grew impatient.

“If the dam’s going to bust, go ahead and bust (so) we can get back to everyday life,” he said.

Among the flustered escapees, John Shurafa, 24, was an anomaly. He was calm. Perhaps that’s because his house is dry and he has food.

“I’ve seen worse,” said Shurafa, a former member of the Army Special Forces. And while he and his siblings don’t have power, he holds onto faith:

“Prayer,” he said. “We need a lot of that.”

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov

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