Burwell Lane and Rickenbaker Road, two of the streets most devastated by October’s floodwaters, no longer feel like ghost towns, the way they did six months ago when most houses sat gutted and vacant.
Construction and renovation crews work constantly. Residents are making their way, house by house, back into their homes on Burwell, Rickenbaker and other streets surrounding Columbia’s Lake Katherine. New families are moving into new homes where flooded-out families sold their houses or their land.
Billy and Mary Keenan were the last to move back into their Heath Hill Road house on the opposite end of the lake. The nearly year-long rebuilding process was “arduous,” Mary Keenan said. And while the couple’s newly renovated, one-story house occupies the same footprint as before, the Keenans opted to entirely change the home’s interior.
“I wanted to come in and have it feel fresh and new, and not have that bad memory,” Mary Keenan said. “All I could see were big puddles,” she said, when she imagined the house as it used to be.
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“I (heart) SC” signs dot many front yards, and the neighborhood is starting to look like a happy place again. But Mary Keenan said her life and her home aren’t quite back to normal.
Rebuilding has changed the texture of many flood-stricken neighborhoods around the Midlands. Some homes have new faces, and others have been raised several feet off the ground, in case the waters ever rise again.
But some lots still sit empty, like ragged holes in the fabric of a charming neighborhood. And some homes remain in limbo, their hollow windows like empty eyes staring at the street.
‘We had to come back’
On nearby Downing Street below Lake Katherine, Frank and Betty Guerra’s home has been lifted 6 feet higher. It sits between a house that is untouched and unrepaired since the flood, and another that has been demolished and is still being rebuilt.
The flood itself was harrowing for the Guerras and has been followed by a year of stress, 69-year-old Frank said. The couple drained their savings to salvage the house they’ve called home for nearly 50 years.
The Guerras moved back in in July, after nine months living with their son. Not long after, the city approached them asking if they’d be interested in a government buyout.
That request should have come 10 months sooner, Frank Guerra said, but the couple wouldn’t have accepted it.
“This is home, so we had to come back,” Guerra said. “I’m broke, but I’m happy.”
‘Still haven’t come to grips’
Cleo Shannon receives telephone calls from friends making sure she is OK every time a hard rain falls.
She finds them reassuring: Her home in Lexington County’s Pine Glen neighborhood has been repaired, but her anxiety has not abated. When the flood struck, she escaped by pushing through chest-high water as she carried a suitcase over her head.
“It was unbelievable,” she said. “I still haven’t come to grips with it.”
Pine Glen was hardest-hit of Lexington County neighborhoods, with 111 of its 134 homes damaged. South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. released water into the Saluda River to protect the Lake Murray dam, and water backed up a creek near the neighborhood, which is about a mile downstream.
Shannon is busy repairing her lawn amid uncertainty about staying in her home of 21 years, which flooded five months after she paid off the mortgage. She is eager to explore plans by county officials to acquire and demolish as many as 65 homes in flood-prone parts of the Irmo-St. Andrews area.
She wonders if she could afford to move elsewhere.
‘Memories before it are distant’
Bill Markham, who lives in Shannon’s neighborhood, has already answered that question for himself: Moving from the home where he has lived for 37 years would be too expensive.
So the 70-year-old retired vehicle salesman spent much of the past year supervising the renovation both of his home and his son’s dwelling a block away.
With help from friends and nonprofit groups, renovations were completed by Christmas — a holiday gift, he said, that “just worked out that way.”
Markham and his wife, Linda, were rescued by deputies in boats from the second story of their home after floodwaters rose swiftly.
“My life now is divided before the flood and after the flood,” he said. “Memories before it are distant, while everything since it is vivid.”
‘There’s not security in staying here’
The flood’s impact remains visible in Pine Glen.
Lexington County officials have given the go-ahead to renovate 82 homes so far. A dozen – some boarded up – await repair. Work is underway at a half dozen more.
But five homes are razed, and more could follow. Foreclosure notices are posted on two.
Some residents face the future with a blend of determination and uncertainty.
“There’s not security in staying here, but not much availability to go somewhere else,” said Markham’s son Will.
A plaque with a biblical saying about facing the future without fear sits on the front porch of Shafeka Carter’s rebuilt home adjoining now-empty lots.
She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.
It was a gift from a friend that she says was inspirational in dealing with recovery.
But doubt returns during downpours, Carter said.
“Sometimes I wonder, did I make the right decision rebuilding?” she said. “I cross my fingers every time it rains.”