From the air, what stands out is the color of the water. The brown runs in sheets across Columbia and surrounding areas, pooling and overflowing in patches on the landscape.
Then it comes into focus.A section of a neighborhood pokes through the muddy water, homes halfway submerged.
This is the view Monday afternoon from a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, the same sort that spent much of Sunday rescuing people trapped by rising flood waters and transitioned into surveying the damage to the city. The flight went over Forest Acres, Fort Jackson and Arcadia Lakes.
Rescue workers said several times the storm’s devastation came in patches, with one area hit hard and no damage a few blocks away. From up high that was apparent, and the terrain took on a few distinct qualities: untouched, overrun with brown water or with a layer of washed on dirt where flooding had once been.
That caking of dirt pushed up to the front door of one house, where a youngster stared at the helicopter flying low.
At a lake, the waters had risen over the back decks of some houses on the shore. Trees on a submerged island poked through and poles for power lines looked short with how high the water level reached.
At the water’s edge, a boat and a full dock laid on their sides.
Water had punched out the earth below a stretch of railroad track, and workers were on the scene with heavy equipment as rails hung in the air.
As the helicopter swooped over the the area where the Saluda and Broad rivers meet the Congaree, it was apparent how swollen it was, overrunning banks and appearing choppy. Nearby, water rushed through a wide breach in the Columbia Canal.
At the McEntire Joint National Guard Base one could see the rescue workers and pilots looking tired and cold coming into a hangar. They spent most of Sunday in flash-flood affected areas and were constantly flying out in the seven available helicopters (three from North Carolina) through Monday.
Henry Hickman, a firefighter from Myrtle Beach and rescue swimmer/rescue tech with South Carolina Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team, had been on flights to rural communities and around waterways. He called the damage sporadic but with concentrated devastation. He had a front-row view in his role with helping get people from their homes into the helicopters.
Will Sirmon, another member of the SC-HART, spent the previous day pulling people out of an area around Bluff Road.
“There was people waving towels, getting our attention,” Sirmon said. “I think we rescued about 25 people out of that one neighborhood. A lot of infants, kids. It was kind of a mess in that area.”