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5 years ago, a 'biblical' flood ushered in SC's wetter future

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Lede 5 year 1000 flood

Drake Street is closed as floodwaters rise Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Charleston. The flooding that year was a record-smashing event that burst 52 dams, flooded thousands of homes, and claimed the lives of 19. Damage totaled nearly $1.5 billion. File/Staff

Across South Carolina, the ground was sodden.

It rained buckets that last week of September 2015. It wasn't too noticeable, but an inch here, 2 inches there, soaked the state. From Sept. 25 on, there wasn't a day without some precipitation. 

Then came the forecast from the National Weather Service: Beginning on the evening of Friday, Oct. 2, more than a foot of rain might arrive.

"People probably had an idea to think about where they lived and the possibilities the creek behind their house could come out of its banks," said Leonard Vaughan, a hydrologist with the Weather Service. "I don't think people really understood how bad it could be."

Some were simply in disbelief. Kevin Shwedo, director of the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, upon hearing a TV forecast of more than 20 inches, put it this way: "That was so biblical to me that I thought they must have been smoking dope."

Sam Agee, a Columbia resident of three decades who was preparing to leave for an international trip, didn't do much to his home on Lake Katherine other than lay down some towels. He and his wife hadn't gotten around to fixing a busted window seal, and they figured they'd leave something to catch the water.

What unfolded was the worst disaster in the state since Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

The rain was the equivalent of what usually fell in four months, but arrived in four days, according to a Weather Service report. It was a record-smashing event that burst 52 dams, flooded thousands of homes, and claimed the lives of 19. Damage totaled nearly $1.5 billion.

But this event — an atmospheric conveyor belt of storms that, for a few days, simply refused to let up — didn't spin out of the tropics. It didn't even have a name. 

For the Lowcountry, the pain was doubled. Flooding arrived in the initial rainstorm Oct. 1-5, and then again weeks later, as the water that fell upstream drained to the coast. 

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Charleston County Rescue workers came to Peppercorn Lane to help residents escape the floodwaters in the neighborhood on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 4, 2015. File/Staff

This "thousand-year flood" ushered in South Carolina's wetter future. Matthew in 2016, Irma in 2017, Florence in 2018 — all these storms brought their own floods, in some cases inundating the same areas over and over. 

And flooding is now top of mind for state lawmakers, who recently approved creating the office of chief resilience officer for the state, and are expected next year to send money to a state fund for flood-control projects.

But as subsequent disasters have piled on more and more pain, some of the vulnerabilities uncovered by the 2015 flood still haven't been addressed. And recovery is a long and ongoing process. The Disaster Recovery Office, a temporary state agency created in the wake of the event, will finally deplete its funding to fix homes swamped in 2015 this year.  

A hard rain falls

A low-pressure system parked itself over Georgia at the beginning of that October and steadily pulled a river of atmospheric moisture across the Palmetto State. So the rain fell, and fell, and fell. The highest reading was eventually taken in Mount Pleasant — nearly 27 inches. 

Shwedo spent much of his time immediately after the rainfall hauling trailers full of cots and supplies around the Midlands to help set up shelters with the Red Cross, where his wife sat on the board. 

It was a challenging time to get around the region, said Kim Stenson, director of the S.C. Emergency Management Division. EMD worked to place swift-water rescue teams near problem areas before the rain arrived, but flooding had washed out roads and destroyed streets on top of some dams, snarling traffic. 

With the exception of larger dams on Lake Murray or Lake Marion, the state did not have a systematic way at the time to warn smaller dam owners to lower lake levels, so that the rains would not swell the water out of its banks.

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Jason Jacobs paddleboards along Huger Street. Heavy rain swamped Charleston-area streets Saturday Oct. 3, 2015. Matthew Fortner/Staff

Even managing lake levels added to the pain. The Lake Murray dam opened its spillway for the first time since 1969, contributing water to already severe flooding downstream.

In short order, Shwedo got a call from then-Gov. Nikki Haley. She wanted him to head the state's first ever Disaster Recovery Office, to coordinate with FEMA workers who had arrived and to plan for rebuilding. 

A 32-year Army veteran, Shwedo took on the challenge knowing he was out of his depths. "I'm really good at breaking things and mowing things down, but I'm not really good at disaster, because I've never done anything but create them," he said. 

Meanwhile, University of South Carolina professor Susan Cutter was boiling water for her adult children in downtown Columbia, whose taps had run dry. Besides the many dams that had ruptured, an unexpected side effect of the rain was the destruction of the Columbia Canal, which conveyed a drinking water source to the city from the Broad River. 

Looking back at record flooding in S.C. (copy)

Floodwaters breach a levee at the Riverfront Canal in Columbia, Oct. 5, 2015. File/Tech. Sgt. Jorge Intriago/U.S. Air National Guard/Provided

Her children accepted her water deliveries for a few days and used the contents of an apartment complex pool to flush their toilets before finally deciding it would be easier to stay with their mother. 

Cutter, who leads USC's Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute, also had to get to work. The school funded several rapid response research projects to probe how the event unfolded and how people responded to it.

The Agees, still abroad, were seeing snippets of information as they traveled across Greece and Turkey with a church group. A photograph from their neighborhood on Facebook showed water as high as a street sign. 

"All of a sudden on the news, somehow we were seeing American news and we see (NBC anchor) Lester Holt around our neighborhood and we thought 'that's never a good sign,' " Agee said. 

It was time to return home, early. 

Accelerate the recovery

When Sam Agee returned, he found his home had already been gutted. About 3 feet of murky water had rushed through the 1960s-built house. 

It was friends from near and far who knew the couple were out of town and wanted to help salvage their belongings. Some even wiped muck from the swollen lake off their framed pictures; others whisked away their clothes and washed them. 

As Cutter worked in the field, she saw the same human spark. People flocked to affected neighborhoods to help with cleanup, or maybe provide food to workers. These helpers often didn't know the flood survivors.

"They just are South Carolinians, and that’s what you do," she said. 

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Bryan Allen works to remove wet drywall from a friend's flood-damaged home Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Columbia. Heavy rainfall caused severe flooding in parts of the state. File/AP 

For those in the Lowcountry, the rains at the beginning of the month were only the first wave. As floodwaters filtered south from the Midlands, they plowed through rural river towns like Andrews, in Georgetown County. Flooding didn't peak for the second time in Charleston until Oct. 27, when a whopping 8.5 foot tide swelled Charleston Harbor.

Shwedo, meanwhile, was building the recovery office. Haley asked him to do two things: accelerate relief efforts and disburse emergency aid in an apolitical way. 

On the first count, he relied on volunteer groups. Without them, little would get done because the recovery office wouldn't have federal money to rebuild homes for months; 110,000 families needed help. 

And on the second, he connected with Cutter and employed a framework she had developed in her research. It's called "the social vulnerability index," which counts factors such as wealth, age and disability, among others, to determine who is most able to bounce back from a disaster. It was those three factors determined who would receive aid first. 

It wasn't always easy to reach the people who needed help most in the rural areas. The DRO enlisted local pastors to spread the word about their services to people wary of the government, Shwedo said. In some cases, the pop-up agency had to convince family members that flooded relatives needed to move in, because staying in trailers with soggy mold-filled insulation was making them sick.

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Members of the Summerville Fire Department walk through floodwaters in the Arbor Oaks neighborhood to answer a call Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015, in Summerville. Heavy rains caused flooding in neighborhoods in the area. File/Staff

Shwedo left the DRO in the middle of 2016. To date, the group still hasn't finished spending all the money provided by the federal government after the 2015 floods. It's spent about $90 million on 1,759 homes, with 80 homes left to go before the funding runs out. 

He argued South Carolina was comparatively fast in helping the most vulnerable get back in their homes.

"We did that better than anywhere in the country," he said.

Addressing weaknesses

What quickly became apparent after the flood was that the many breached dams had unwitting owners, homeowners associations or individual property owners who had not given much thought before to the geographic blockages that served as roads or boundaries of scenic lakes. 

"We worked very hard right after that to push for stronger dam legislation and that, of course, has really gone nowhere," said Valerie Marcil, board president of the Gills Creek Watershed Association in 2015. The creek runs from the east side of Columbia to southern Richland County, and the watershed included more than 30 dams. Some of the most extreme flooding unfolded there. 

A sweeping dam-safety bill sponsored by Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, in his first year as the speaker of the S.C. House stalled in committee. The few measures that passed the House got bogged in the Senate.

S.C. still underwater (copy)

Water in the floodplain of the Black River envelops this house between Andrews and Kingstree in October 2015. File/Staff 

The General Assembly did provide the state Department of Health an Environmental Control more funding for dam inspectors, said Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews. He considers that a success. The agency now regularly warns dam owners in advance of incoming heavy rains.

But, contrary to Marcil, Ott said existing regulations are too burdensome for some. Dam owners in rural areas with little traffic are facing high scrutiny that's better applied in more populated communities, he said. 

"As is the case with South Carolina, whenever something like that happens there is a rush by a lot of people to introduce legislation and be the ones to fix the problem," he said. "A lot of times then, it kind of subsides and I don't know that we ever truly fix the underlying problems. I think this is a prime example of that."

Meanwhile, state legislators took a major step this year in creating a new state Resilience Office, with a Cabinet-level chief resilience officer to help direct flood management in the state. The office and new position won't be funded until next year. It will absorb the Disaster Recovery Office created in 2015.

Cutter agreed there needs to be a person with the governor's ear to lead disaster response, and said that right now, the responsibilities fall to too many different agencies — dam regulation at DHEC, flood modeling and flood insurance at the Department of Natural Resources, messaging from EMD, and rebuilding at the DRO.

She questioned whether the new resilience group was too focused on flooding only, just a single type of threat for the state. "The choice for the lead of such an office will speak volumes as to what it will undertake," she said.

Meanwhile, Agee thinks he'll never see another flood like the one in 2015. The seven dams upstream have either been rebuilt to higher standards or sit still-ruptured, no longer holding back caches of water that could intensify flooding downstream. 

"We have survived," he said. "The house is rebuilt, and we also love where we live."

Chris Emrich, a University of Central Florida professor who worked at USC with Cutter in 2015, says extreme rain events can and will happen again. After 2015, there was Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which dropped 60 inches over four days in Houston. 

"To say it's a 'thousand-year' event and we’re all set" for the next thousand years is wrong, Emrich said. "Certainly, the same thing can happen again."

In some ways, he argued, we'll never know every single area the flood touched.

The U.S. Geological Survey recorded more than 600 high water marks in the wake of the storm. They focused on the areas of the worst damage, so in some of the more rural areas of the Interstate-26 corridor between Charleston and Columbia, there's no record of how high the waters rose.

Correction: This story was updated on Oct. 6 to include the extent of the USGS's after-flood surveys in South Carolina. 

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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