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Florence’s slow march through South Carolina raises fears of record floods

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Tropical Weather North Carolina (copy)

Portions of North Carolina remained flooded by Florence on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Significant flooding could occur in South Carolina as the floodwaters flow across the Carolinas. Steve Helber/AP

Spinning as if in slow-motion, Tropical Storm Florence continued its agonizing march across South Carolina on Saturday, dropping record amounts of rain and leaving fears of catastrophic floods in its wake.

Rivers swelled in the Carolinas even as more rain bombs fell. Rain totals in North Carolina were measured in feet, and great pulses of water there were headed downriver toward South Carolina.

The Waccamaw River in Conway was expected to rise about 12 feet by Wednesday, threatening to breach dikes around a coal ash dump next to a closed Santee Cooper power plant. A failure in the earthen berms could unleash 200,000 tons of ash laced with toxic chemicals.

Elsewhere, state officials raced to build two temporary dams on the Pee Dee and Lynches rivers to prevent floodwaters from cutting off parts of Myrtle Beach.

Officials also cast wary eyes on the state’s many small dams, with the memories of dam breaks in 2015’s “1,000-year-flood” and 2016's Hurricane Matthew still fresh in their minds. They warned that rising waters on the Pee Dee, Little Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers would likely wash out several bridges.

All told, the storm was expected to dump 18 trillion gallons on the region, enough to cover the entire state of Texas with 4 inches of water, a forecaster said. It has claimed at least 13 lives, including two people in Horry County who died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator inside their home. It triggered hundreds of rescues in North Carolina and knocked out power to nearly a million people.

The storm “has been most unpredictable,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said Saturday, “but what has been predictable and steady is our concern for heavy rain and flooding.”

Conditions along the coast improved Saturday as the storm continued its northwest crawl. And by Monday, skies will clear, but river levels in some areas will rise to record heights.

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A Santee Cooper crew checks pumps at the edge of the former Grainger power plant’s coal ash pond in Conway, next to the Waccamaw River, on Sept. 15, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

Ash pits in danger

Lingering close to the coast Friday and Saturday, the storm’s long spiraling arms scooped up vast amounts of moisture in the Atlantic and hurled it onto land. 

Hardest hit were areas between Morehead City, N.C., and Myrtle Beach.

Rain gauges captured mind-boggling totals in North Carolina: 35 inches in Surf City and 32 inches at Wrightsville Beach, near Wilmington. More than a foot of rain fell in many inland areas, as well.

And much of this water drains toward South Carolina, including the Waccamaw River.

The Waccamaw drains an area the size of Rhode Island. It snakes roughly parallel to the coast near Myrtle Beach and passes Santee Cooper’s now-closed Grainger Generating Station and its large ash pits.

Earlier in the week, the river was running at about 8 feet near the plant, according to National Weather Service data. By Wednesday, it was expected to hit 19.2 feet — more than a foot higher than the record set in 2016 by Hurricane Matthew. That year, the river nearly topped the ash pond berms.

“If the river reaches the forecasted level, it will overtop at least some sections of the dike,” said Mollie Gore, Santee Cooper spokeswoman.

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Pumps move water from the Waccamaw River (left) into coal ash ponds to equalize pressure on the dikes at the former Grainger generating station in Conway on Saturday September 15, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

Amid Florence’s pounding rains, Santee Cooper mounted an all-out effort to keep the dikes from failing. Workers mobilized excavators and bulldozers in case of a breach, Gore said. They filled giant bags of rocks. A heavy-lift helicopter will drop the bags in any holes that form. Utility workers also pumped water into the ponds to equalize pressure on the berms as the river rises next to them.

“It's very unfortunate and actually very scary for the Waccamaw River,” said Cara Schildtknecht, the Waccamaw Riverkeeper.

The situation is dire, but Santee Cooper also has been cleaning up the site for several years, reducing potential risks, said Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. The group sued, and eventually lawsuits led to major coal ash cleanups throughout the state.

Holleman said about 1.3 million of the site’s 1.5 million tons have been removed. But he pointed out that a disastrous coal ash spill in Virginia’s Dan River involved 39,000 tons, a fifth of what's still at the Grainger site.

“So it’s a dangerous situation at Grainger because some of it still remains.” 

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On Saturday, September 15, 2018, Wayne Cooper shows where the Waccamaw River water level rose to beneath his house when rain from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew caused the river to overflow its banks near Conway. Wade Spees/Staff

'The rushing water'

Downriver from the coal plant, Wayne Cooper has been dealing with flooding since 1999 when he started building his home. The river normally runs a few feet away from the pilings that prop up the house. But when the water comes, it's fast, and it reaches the road on the other side of his house in a matter of minutes.

It stays for far longer, and even when the water finally recedes, it leaves behind a fine white silt, like beach sand.

"The biggest thing is the rushing water," Cooper said. "It runs so fast, and sometimes you just got to get out of the way for three or four weeks."

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Wayne Cooper, who lives in an elevated house along the Waccamaw River in Conway, carried up Christmas decorations and other items on Saturday, September 15, 2018, in anticipation of the river overflowing its banks due to rains brought by Florence. Wade Spees/Staff

Cooper said that for most of his time there he didn't have many serious flooding issues. He married, had a daughter, and accumulated two dogs and two cats. Then came 2015, when rains caused catastrophic flooding across the state. A year later, Hurricane Matthew sent another deluge downstream from North Carolina. The water rose to about four and a half feet under the home.

So, in the wake of Florence, he readied his boat for a quick exit.

"By Wednesday, it's going to get hairy," he said.

Interstates closed

It was beyond hairy in North Carolina on Saturday as the rain kept falling.

The N.C. Emergency Management Division tweeted that out-of-state travelers should avoid driving through the state: “We are currently engaged in large scale search and rescue missions in coastal counties. The flooding we are experiencing will only get worse.”

Officials feared that as much as 45 inches would fall in parts of the state. Three cities, including Fayetteville, issued mandatory evacuation orders for people living within one mile of the banks of the Cape Fear and Little rivers.

Floods shut down key highways, including Interstate 95 near Fayetteville.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted, “Currents of water are flooding homes, covering roads and sweeping away cars.” 

John Quagliariello, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the rainfalls in North Carolina were "very extreme up there." He cited a 31-inch total in Pamlico County.

"That’s a tremendous amount."  

He said that in South Carolina 8 to 12 inches would fall from Rock Hill to Florence to Myrtle Beach, and 2 to 6 inches farther southwest. "There is still the potential for deadly flash flooding" along the Grand Strand and in the Pee Dee. Nearly 13 inches fell in Conway and 6 inches in Kingstree.

Floods could affect the state's already vulnerable rural communities.

In South Carolina, the Pee Dee river drains rivers from North Carolina, crossing I-95 northeast of Florence and running south down to Georgetown. Along the way are the small towns of Cheraw, where the poverty rate is 33 percent, and Pee Dee, which has one gas station.

In those towns, the river will rise sharply. By late Tuesday, the flooding there will be considered severe.

Evacuees, normalcy return

In Charleston, Florence's outer bands brought brisk winds and showers, but nothing like the catastrophic rains to the north. McMaster lifted evacuation orders for Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties at noon. He lifted orders for the rest of the coast effective at 9 a.m. Sunday.

But many businesses already had begun to open their doors. Schools in the tri-county area were expected to reopen Monday.

Evacuees would begin to flow back into the area, while rivers to the north would continue their unrelenting rise.

Chloe Johnson reported from Conway; Joseph Cranney reported from Wilmington, N.C.; Mary Katherine Wildeman, Andrew Brown and Seanna Adcox also 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