By Andrew Shain
A slow-moving storm produced historic floods Sunday after dumping more than a foot of rain in parts of Columbia.
The rainfall submerged low-lying traffic intersections, washed away roads and flooded homes. Dozens of people needed to be rescued by police and firefighters or were ferried to safety by neighbors in boats. A mother and child were plucked off a rooftop in Richland County by an S.C. National Guard helicopter, state Adjutant General Robert Livingston said.
The deluge also caused several water mains to break in the Columbia water system, forcing many residents to lose service, according to a news release from the city. The worst-hit areas were downtown Columbia and southeast Richland County. Residents may be without service for three to four days, the city said. Meanwhile, water customers with service in Columbia, West Columbia and Blythewood were advised to vigorously boil the water for at least a minute before drinking it.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Sunday that city and county law enforcement, as well as the Columbia Fire Department, pulled hundreds of people out of situations where they were endangered by rising waters.
"And there likely have been thousands of houses and homes and cars that have had water damage," Lott said.
While as much as 16.6 inches fell in some areas around Columbia on Sunday, officially more than 10 inches of rain was counted at Columbia Metropolitan Airport on Saturday and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service. That set the 128-year-old record for two days (7.7 inches) and three days (8.4 inches). A single-day record was set on Sunday at almost seven inches.
Some areas around Columbia received as much rain Sunday as the region absorbed in the past three months combined, according to National Weather Service data. Another inch or two of rain was expected overnight.
The effects of the storm will linger Monday as rivers and creeks remain swollen and streets flooded after the record rainfall.
"It's not over," Gov. Nikki Haley said. "We're still in the middle of it."
On Monday, schools and colleges, including the University of South Carolina, canceled classes. Government offices in Richland and Lexington counties as well as Columbia also are closed Monday. Some businesses, such as doctors practices, also plan to close for the day. The Comet bus system in the Columbia area suspended service.
Haley asked South Carolinians to stay off roads so state crews can make repairs to roads and power lines.
"Give us the space that we need," she said.
Curfews and cresting rivers
After soaking Charleston with what state officials said was a 1,000-year-high two feet of rain since Thursday, the storm shifted northwest Sunday and drenched the Midlands.
More than 16 inches had fallen at Forest Drive and Interstate 77 during Sunday, according to Richland County. More than a foot of rain had fallen in an area stretching from Eastover to Five Points.
The flooding led to curfews in Richland County and much of Lexington County from 6 p.m. Sunday through 6 a.m. Monday.
Lexington County also recommended voluntary evacuations within a quarter mile of the banks of the Saluda and Congaree rivers. SCE&G released water from the Lake Murray Dam, swelling the Saluda, Broad and Congaree rivers.
The Congaree River in Columbia crested past 30 feet for the first time in 79 years.
As the Congaree rose, state transportation officials weighed whether to close the Gervais and Blossom street bridges near downtown Columbia. Those bridges remained open early Sunday night.
Bridges over the Broad River at Interstate 20 and Interstate 126 were closed Sunday.
The Congaree is not expected to fall below flood stage until late Wednesday night.
State transportation officials said they planned to close low-lying portions of Interstates 20, 26 and 77 around Columbia. Several exits were closed because of flooding under overpasses.
More than 150 roads were closed in Richland and Lexington counties Sunday, according to the S.C. Department of Transportation.
Much of the Columbia flooding came from Gills Creek, and several stores and restaurants around Devine Street and Rosewood Drive were covered by deep water.
The creek nearly doubled its previous record high mark by reaching 17 feet on Sunday. Gills Creek rose a foot in seven hours, according to National Weather Service data.
At least three dams had failed in Richland County by 9 a.m. The Forest Lake, Arcadia Lake and Lake Dogwood dams burst under the pressure of rising waters, Columbia Fire Department spokesman Brick Lewis said. Some of the dam breaks caused flooding in Forest Acres-area neighborhoods.
In Lexington, the Old Mill Pond in the center of downtown overflowed and led to evacuations of homes along 12-Mile Creek.
Lexington received more than eight inches of rain Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.
"Our dirt roads have become drainage ditches," Lexington County Administrator Joe Mergo said. "We have never seen rain like this in my 22 years."
Emergency shelters were opened to aid those displaced from flooded homes. Richland and Lexington counties opened at least four emergency shelters.
At least five people across the state have died in incidents related to the storm that started late last week.
Richland County coroner Gary Watts said late Sunday night that three water-related deaths were in the Columbia area, and all involved people who were trapped in their vehicles in rising water on Sunday.
One of the victims was a young woman who died on Sunset Drive in north Columbia, Watts said. Of the other two fatalities, one was Devine Street in the vicinity of Fort Jackson Boulevard, and the other on Garners Ferry Road, Watts said. He added that more details will be available on Monday.
The state remains on full alert with the storm.
President Barack Obama and S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley have declared states of emergency in South Carolina.
To handle the crisis, the S.C. National Guard has activated another 300 service members, bringing the total to about 500, said Derrec Becker, a spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Division.
South Carolina also has requested other states send swift-water rescue teams.
Nine teams are coming from states including West Virginia and Tennessee, Becker said. The Federal Emergency Management Administration is sending two rescue teams. South Carolina has eight rescue teams.
A Columbia firefighter went missing in the flood but was rescued about an hour later, Lewis said.
The storm knocked out power to about 13,000 S.C. Electric and Gas customers in Richland and Lexington counties. Electric cooperatives in the Midlands reported another 4,000 outages.
Repairs could unfold slowly after the massive storm.
"The roads are making it really, really difficult for us to get to a lot of places to restore power," SCE&G spokeswoman Ginny Jones said.
On Sunday, the heavy rain forced cancellations of church services.
"We couldn't find Noah's Ark in time," the Downtown Church on low-lying Whaley Street told parishioners. "So, church is canceled this morning. Stay safe, and we'll see you next Sunday."
Staff writers John Monk, Clif LeBlanc, Tim Flach, Sammy Fretwell, Jamie Self, Sarah Ellis and Roddie Burris contributed
(c)2015 The State (Columbia, S.C.)