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As Florence's floods recede, SC residents confront snakes, mold and other dangers

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Florence’s record floods receded Tuesday in parts of South Carolina, but the storm’s deluge left behind a stew of new dangers and challenges: displaced snakes, potentially deadly microbes in the muck and daunting financial questions about insurance and repairs.

Already, hospitals in the Pee Dee and Grand Strand have seen a spike in snake and other animal bites, though no fatalities have been reported. Meanwhile, floodwaters have breached sewer plants and hog and poultry lagoons across the Carolinas, sending massive slugs of contaminated water toward the coast.

This water contains an alphabet soup of bacteria and viruses, health officials warn. Even when floodwaters are gone, microbes such as tetanus and E.coli can live for months in the mud. And, in severely damaged homes, mold spores have bloomed, presenting other health risks.

All this raises real dangers for thousands of storm-weary residents as they return to their mud-stained homes — people like Jerry Barczyk.

Barczyk was busy cleaning out his flooded garage Tuesday morning as floodwaters drained back into the area’s swamps and creeks.

He lives next to a putting green for the Aberdeen Country Club outside Longs, an unincorporated community in Horry County. His home and dozens of others around him were swamped by the overflowing Waccamaw River. Though the worst of the flooding was over, his backyard remained a pond of standing water.

Nearby, scores of dead fish rotted on the sidewalk and driveway, an eel baked in the heat of a neighbor’s yard, and buzzards and crows circled overhead.

Barczyk now worries about mold. “I just went and bought three gallons of bleach,” he said. “They say anything the water touches is contaminated.”

'As if in combat'

Florence came ashore the morning of Sept. 14, dumping at least 11 trillion gallons of water on the Carolinas. Floodwaters coursed through the region, swamping 32 lagoons of animal feces, killing at least 3.4 million chickens and 5,500 hogs in North Carolina alone. Massive volumes of this waste-laden water then crossed the South Carolina border on its way to the sea.

Despite the gunk flowing in our waterways, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control has no plans to test Florence’s floodwaters for bacteria.

That's because the agency assumes it will be contaminated, said Tommy Crosby, DHEC spokesman.

But Will Hendrick of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a national organization that supports local waterkeepers, said the public deserves more precise information about the risks they face as they rebuild their lives.

The group plans to test floodwaters themselves and do tests to determine whether contamination came from human sources or animal farms.

"Large volumes of waste are stored right there in the floodplain," Hendrick said. "The result is a cost that's passed on to the public when it floods."

There’s no dispute that floodwaters carry health risks. After Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston in 2017, researchers sampled sediments in streets and inside homes. They found high levels of E. coli, a bacteria associated with human and animal waste. The highest levels were inside flooded homes, not outside, researchers found.

Two months passed before bacteria levels returned to normal. At the same time, hospitals in Houston saw increases in gastrointestinal and other infections, including the death of a 77-year-old woman who died of a flesh-eating bacteria after she fell in a flooded home.

“The first rule of thumb is to let the water go down,” said Michael Schmidt, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Standing water likely will have high levels of bacteria, debris and snakes, he said. When large numbers of animals die, “then you end up with all the consequences of dead carcasses — pathogens from rotting flesh.” Open cuts are invitations for infections. “And as you’re sloshing through the water, you’re actually inhaling and ingesting it. Assume the worst.”

After the water recedes, people often focus on getting rid of the mud. “Then you always have to worry about flesh eaters,” he said, referring to virulent microbes that can turn an ordinary cut into a festering wound. Tetanus and microbes that cause gangrene also are in soils. “And when they get a foothold, they grow like crazy.”

Signs of a potentially dangerous infection include an area around a wound that looks puffy or dark. “That needs to be treated immediately.” Schmidt's advice to residents and other cleanup workers: “Go in almost as if you’re in combat.” Wear waders, long-sleeve shirts and pants to protect your skin from cuts. Don’t walk through mud and standing water in flip flops. Instead of thin surgical gloves, wear heavy dishwashing gloves — they hold up better.

And if you see mold, buy an N95 mask — one that excludes particulates. These masks are widely available at hardware stores and may prevent you from inhaling mold spores.

“Once spores get in your lungs, your immune system reacts, and you’ll feel unwell.”

Flip-flopping in the muck

Near Barczyk’s home in the Aberdeen Country Club subdivision, Larry Long, 81, was in his flip flops as he walked through his bedroom. His plush carpet made squishy noises as he stepped. He piled his belongings into heavy duty trash bags. The walls in his garage had already sprouted mold spores.

“I should have on a plastic suit right now. But it’s so hot out,” he said as he took a break to look out his backdoor over the fetid swamp that's now his backyard. A dead 12-inch bass next to his house added to the foul aroma.

Neighbors already have seen alligators and snakes swimming through the murky water behind Long’s home.

“I’m more afraid of them than they are of me,” he said. “As long as I go one way and they go another, we’ll be OK.”

His fears are justified. Snakes and other critters displaced by rising waters also are a threat in Florence's aftermath.

McLeod Health, which runs seven hospitals in areas affected by the storm, said the hospitals have seen a notable rise of snake and other animal bites, at least twice as much as normal.

Its hospital in Dillon has seen 13 cases alone, a spokeswoman said.

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Nichols flood damage 24.JPG

Robert Mason boards up his buildings he owns downtown Nichols from gaining more water damage on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

'Need to be careful'

In Nichols, the Lumber and Little Pee Dee rivers finally gave up their grip on the little town. A handful of residents returned to start the tedious process of tearing apart their modest homes. Hardwood flooring began to stack up next to the roadway. A mattress swollen with water was still parked on South Nichols Street like a beached whale.

Beyond snakes and intestinal viruses, flood-weary residents also face many financial decisions, some that could ripple through their lives for months or longer: Should they call disaster-response companies? If so, will insurance or the Federal Emergency Management Agency cover these costs?

Lisa Sharrard, a former floodplain manager and insurance consultant in Columbia, said private remediation companies from across the country will send teams to the region. Armed with large heated fans and other equipment, they can help homeowners keep mold at bay.

But consumers need to be aware that FEMA’s disaster assistance or flood insurance won’t always cover the full cost of what these companies offer.

“They charge per fan, and they’ll bring in 10 times the number of fans that they’ll be reimbursed for,” Sharrard said. “They do this every storm, so we really need to be careful.”

FEMA inspectors were already on the scene in five South Carolina counties eligible for disaster aid: Marlboro, Dillon, Marion, Chesterfield and Horry. 

Homeowners with damage should file claims with their insurance companies before seeking federal disaster funds, said Derrec Becker, state Emergency Management Division Director.  

“These programs are there to make sure you are safe, not to make you whole again,” Becker said. The maximum FEMA award is $34,000 for individual households, but that’s not a lock: The average award for South Carolina homeowners affected by Hurricane Matthew was $6,095, according to FEMA.

Russ Dubisky of the S.C. Insurance News Service said insurers are sending in adjusters to assess claims, but most homeowner policies won’t cover flood damage.

And many homeowners don't have flood insurance. Only 9 percent of properties in South Carolina were covered by federally backed flood insurance as of July 31.

In some of the inland counties hardest hit by Matthew and now Florence — Dillon, Marion, Marlboro and Chesterfield — that figure drops to 2 percent or less.

“It’s sad,” Dubisky said. “But, unfortunately, this is another year we are going to be talking about a lot of people who don’t have flood insurance having sustained flood damage.”

Additional help may be available through charities and the One SC Fund. Last week, Gov. Henry McMaster reignited calls for people and businesses to donate to the fund, as he announced a $500,000 donation from UnitedHealth Group.

The first awards to nonprofits helping Florence’s victims will probably go out over the next two weeks, said JoAnn Turnquist, CEO of the Central Carolina Community Foundation, which administers the fund at no cost.

“Based on our experiences with 2015 and Matthew," Turnquist said, "it's a long tale of disaster.” 

Glenn Smith, Seanna Adcox and Abigail Darlington contributed to this report.

Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier. He has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reach him at 843-937-5554 and @tbartelme