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Tropical Storm Bertha develops unexpectedly, causes rain, flooding in Charleston area

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Tropical Storm Bertha formed unexpectedly on Wednesday morning, bringing strong winds and heavy rain to the Charleston area.

The system, considered weak, formed early Wednesday just off the South Carolina coast. 

Bertha made landfall about 20 miles east of Charleston with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. It was the first tropical storm to make landfall in South Carolina since Hurricane Matthew in 2016. 

"It was not expected to develop," said Mike Emlaw, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Charleston. He said Tropical Storm Bertha's development was sudden, as meteorologists watched its winds swiftly increase to 40 mph. 

But they knew the storm would be a short-lived event, Emlaw said. As the storm made landfall near Mount Pleasant, conditions were already rapidly improving and the window for rainfall was closing. Most of the bad weather was experienced in the early morning.

Weather systems are classified as tropical storms when winds reach 39 mph and become hurricanes when sustained winds reach 74 mph.

The weather service didn't receive any reports of major damage or injuries from the storm. Despite the tropical storm making landfall, "it wasn't much different from a normal summer day," Emlaw said.

Bertha became the second named storm before the official start of 2020's Atlantic hurricane season. This is the sixth straight year that a named storm has developed before the season begins on June 1.

As the tropical storm moved inland with heavy rains, the system was downgraded. Rainfall pounded the Midlands and areas of the Upstate as it traveled through North Carolina and to points west.

Earlier in May, Tropical Storm Arthur, the year's first named storm, brought rain to North Carolina. The last time there were two named storms before June was in 2016.

By 7 a.m. on Wednesday, 2 to 4 inches of rain had fallen across the Charleston area. 

In some areas, floodwaters swamped the streets before residents had begun to venture outside. On America Street, between Johnston Street and Harrison Avenue, residents awakened to an intersection that had become a canal.

Some sedans parked on the curb had water up to their doors. Commuting in the area wasn't going to be likely.

Garbage cans spilled over. Dirty diapers, magazines and food scraps clogged nearby drains.

Charleston city officials opened the Public Safety Operation Center for about four hours Wednesday morning to monitor flooding. A number of streets closed during the morning commute, with flooding being reported at the usual spots at King and Huger streets, President Street north of the Septima P. Clark Parkway, or Crosstown, and Hagood Avenue.

Water started rising at the intersection of Line and Flood streets Wednesday morning.


A woman pedals along a high spot on President Street in Charleston through floodwaters from Tropical Storm Bertha's rains on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Matthew Fortner/Staff

The crossing on the edge of the Gadsden Green public housing development is a low point that often fills up first. Around 8:45 a.m., seagulls splashed in waters where a filthy discarded medical mask floated, and residents of the complex peered outside to see if they needed to move their cars to higher ground.

Lee Taylor was one of several city housing authority employees checking on residents as the water rose. He knocked on one first-floor door in a yellow building and asked, “You got water?”

The resident inside shook his head "no." The ponding around the area, worst at President and Kennedy streets, was nowhere near as bad as the rains that swamped Charleston roughly two weeks ago, several residents said.

Thomas Novelly, Chloe Johnson, Mikaela Porter and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Reach Fleming Smith at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

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