Storm Dumps Foot of Rain Across Columbia, S.C., Overnight

Richland County declared a state of emergency Sunday, which allows the county to seek help from state emergency officials and buy emergency equipment and supplies.

by Andrew Shain, The State (Columbia, S.C.) / October 4, 2015
Cars try to go through flood waters on Hardscrabble Road on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Roads across South Carolina flooded in some of the heaviest rains in decades. AP

(MCT) - A slow-moving storm that has left parts of Charleston underwater dumped a foot of rain on the Columbia area since midnight.

The historic rainfall submerged low-lying traffic intersections around Columbia including Devine Street and Rosewood Drive and areas around Decker Boulevard.

Richland County declared a state of emergency Sunday, which allows the county to seek help from state emergency officials and buy emergency equipment and supplies.

Roads were closed all over the Midlands, including portions of interstates 77 and 20.

A 75-mile stretch of Interstate 95 between interstates 20 and 26 was closed. The heavily traveled highway through the eastern portion of the state was not closed during 1989’s Hurricane Hugo.

“It is impassible,” said Derrec Becker, a spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Division.

State officials are telling drivers to stay home — even if there is little rain in their part of South Carolina.

“We’ve got another day of this at least,” Becker said.

At least four people across the state have died in incidents related to the storm that started late last week. The latest was a motorist on U.S. 378 in West Columbia who died in flood waters Sunday, an emergency official said.

In Columbia, the city received hundreds of calls requesting rescue and and evacuation. Creeks have overflowed into neighborhoods and shopping centers.

A Columbia firefighter went missing in the flood. Authorities found the firefighter who had disappeared in a Lower Richland floodbound area, department spokesman Brick Lewis said.

The storm has knocked out power to more than 4,000 S.C. Electric and Gas customers in Richland County on Sunday morning. Lexington County customers were reporting more than 900 outages. More than 7,400 SCE&G customers statewide were without power Sunday morning as of about 10:30 a.m.

Between 3:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Sunday, the Columbia Fire Department had rescued people in at least 50 vehicles throughout the capital city.

Flooding is widespread in Columbia.

The vehicle rescues have taken place in the Olympia and Whaley street areas, at Washington and Main, on Ft. Jackson Boulevard and in the vicinity of the Forest Drive and Trenholm Road intersection.

With the heavy rains continuing, Lewis said the city was advising people to stay indoors.

"Stay home and do not go to church," said Lewis, adding some churches had also called off services.

After soaking Charleston with nearly two feet of rain since Thursday, the storm shifted northwest overnight and drenched the Midlands.

More than 14 inches had fallen at Forest Drive and Interstate 77 since midnight, according to Richland County. About a foot of rain had fallen in Eastover as well. About 10 inches soaked Five Points.

Shortly after 7 am, the S.C. Emergency Management Agency issued a statement saying the state was in an emergency situation and urged people to stay inside "due to severe weather and flash flooding."

The warning applied to people in Richland, Lexington, Kershaw, Calhoun, Fairfield and Newberry counties.

Flooding is expected in Columbia, Lexington, West Columbia, Cayce, Irmo, Camden, Springdale, St. Andrews, as well as in Fairfield and Newberry counties, the National Weather Service reported.

Portions of interstates 77 and 20 around Columbia were closed because of standing water, the S.C. Highway Patrol reported shortly before 8 a.m. Sunday.

The stretches of I-77 closed were between mile markers 10 and 13 between Garners Ferry Road and Fort Jackson Boulevard, as well as a section near the Decker Boulevard exit.

The water was on both the north and southbound directions of I-77, state trooper David Jones said.

Also, a stretch of I-20 near Two Notch Road had also been closed, Jones said.

"Don't even attempt to travel," Jones advised shortly before 8 a.m. "You just need to stay off the road."

At least three dams had failed in Richland County by 9 a.m.

The Forest Lake, Arcadia Lake and Lake Dogwood dams had been affected by rising waters that were creating pressure, Lewis said.

"If you can get out to higher ground, we urge everyone to do that at this time," Lewis said.

Lewis did not know of any injuries related to broken dams, but he said the department was generally busy helping people trapped in homes and cars across town. The first dam breaks were reported after dawn.

"The rainfall totals that have come in are causing the waters of these lakes to flow over the dams and just give way,"" he said. "It is putting pressure on the dams."

In Lexington, the Old Mill Pond in the center of downtown has overflowed and led to evacuations of homes along 12-Mile Creek.

Lexington received more than six inches of rain overnight, 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.”

SCE&G plans on releasing water from Lake Murray around noon, which will increase water flow to the Saluda River.

Lake Murray is an elevation of about 358 feet. SCE&G wants to keep the lake below 360 feet.

Shelters have begun to open.

Lexington County has opened two emergency shelters at the Lexington County Leisure Center in Lexington and Seven Oaks Park in Irmo.

Richland County opened a shelter at St. Andrews Baptist Church on Bush River Road.

The storm’s shift northwest does not mean conditions have improved on the coast, Becker said.

State emergency officials are concerned about flooding getting worse with high tide at 2 p.m. Charleston could get another 6 inches of rain Sunday, according to National Weather Service forecasts.

The Columbia area is expected to get another 5 1/2 inches.

President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for South Carolina on Saturday.

To handle the crisis, the S.C. National Guard has activated another 300 service members, bringing the total to about 500, Becker said.

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 Agency is sending two rescue teams. South Carolina has eight rescue teams.

The Comet Columbia-area bus system suspended services until further notice.

The rain forced cancellations across the Midlands, including church services.

One church that did cancel its Sunday worship was the Downtown Church on low-lying Whaley Street in the Olympia section of town near the University of South Carolina baseball stadium: "We couldn't find Noah's Ark in time. So, church is cancelled this morning. Stay safe, and we'll see you next Sunday."

Staff writers John Monk, Clif LeBlanc, Tim Flach, Sammy Fretwell, Sarah Ellis and Jamie Self contributed

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