Writer Salley McInerney spent what amounts to an eight-hour workday Wednesday in two Columbia neighborhoods hard-hit by flooding.
Among the many people she met that day – salvaging homes, possessions, lives – there was a message from one: “I want to make sure if somebody reads this, they will be inspired to rise above adversity.”
Shady Lane is a ribbon of two-lane road, running along one side of Lake Katherine and Ground Zero for yet another long and wearing day in the life of a catastrophic flood that ripped through this suburban gut of east Columbia just days ago.
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The sun is out; the sky clear, crystalline blue. As pretty an October day as you could wish for, especially if your material life – your furniture, your photos, your books, your almost everything – is drying out in your muddied yard, waiting to be cleaned and repaired, or, more likely, piled up by the street, waiting to be hauled away.
One right after another, these huge piles of human possessions are stunning, startling.
Turning onto a side street, even closer to the 156-acre lake, Elliott Powell’s unassuming brick home is unscathed – perched just high enough on the lakeside landscape to have escaped the wild floodwaters of the past weekend.
Powell is a big man whose handshake will leave you weak. He’s a businessman, but never mind that. What’s important here is that he grew up on the lake. Knows it like the back of his hand.
And knew, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, that those who live around it, were in trouble.
Powell had gone to bed late Saturday night, having watched the Clemson game. He woke up several hours later.
“I was curious, so I went in the den. I could hear and see a steady rain. That was probably 3 a.m. I was hoping my automatic bilge on my deck boat was working. I didn’t want to have to get it out of the bottom of the lake. So, I’m concerned about that but I go back to bed. I woke up before light and went down to the water’s edge. I see that it’s higher than it’s ever been and I’ve been living here 55 years. I go back inside, turn the TV on.
“They were talking about the fact that the rain looked like a fire hose and was going to continue. That’s when it struck me that we were going to be dealing with something that we had never before dealt with in our lives.”
Powell waited for enough light to operate in, woke up his 17-year-old son Austin, emptied a red canoe nearer the house and paddled it out to the deck boat.
“I started praying for the rain to stop,” Powell said, “but I was also praying for the boat to be functioning so that I could use it.”
One prayer was answered; the green and white DuraCraft cranked right up – and a rescue operation began that will be the stuff of stories told to grandchildren.
“We got out on the water. I could see that it had changed to a very light color. Like cream in coffee. My son’s got his camera out. He’s looking like he’d never seen anything like this in his life. I’m sizing things up. I’ve got people on the lake who are threatened. I’m calling my neighbors, asking them what their plan is … People are getting scared. People were coming out of their homes. Calling, texting, waving me down.”
The DuraCraft plowed up to homes consumed by water. Neighbors leapt onto the 20-foot boat.
“We didn’t have any long conversations. We didn’t reflect or have any profound ‘Kumbaya’ experience. I just told them they needed to have a place to go.”
Powell delivered his wet, dazed passengers to a landing near the south end of the lake and before the rescue operation ended, more boats were turning up on the lake, aiding in the rescue effort.
Powell navigated the DuraCraft across Lake Katherine, past a dock with a boat still attached to it, settled on top of the earthen dam like something way too big to be sitting on a coffee table.
Past a sailboat upended in the water. A pontoon boat crushed against the side of a house. Life-size Christmas decorations – Santa, his sleigh and reindeer – drying out on a fence. A white SUV mostly submerged in the water, marked with a big orange X, indicating that it had been checked for human bodies.
And then, past a yellow-beaked cormorant perched on a basketball goal floating nearby.
“Pests,” Powell grumbled.
Maybe so, but nothing like the bane of a 1,000-year flood.
“Of about 88 homes on the lake,” Powell said, “probably about 15 or 20 didn’t get flooded.”
A neighbor on the north end of the lake waved to Powell from his backyard. Chris Stormer. A CPA. He was out of town when the flood began. Powell rescued his wife and daughter. Stormer smiles, pointing to Powell.
“Superman,” he said.
“No,” Powell answered, squinting into the midday sun, “I’m just one of those guys – I don’t panic. Panic is what kills. I’ve always been around the water. I’m comfortable with it. I love it.”
Well then, maybe not Superman, but how about hero?
“Absolutely not. I consider myself to be someone who was in a position to do what South Carolinians do. They do the right thing. They help their fellow man, especially in a crisis. We pray for each other and we love each other.”
Time to move on. Another bear grip of a handshake. Stepping off the Duracraft, onto a soggy field of debris washed up in Powell’s backyard. The list is crazy. No rhyme or reason to it.
Except lots of fast, powerful, moving water.
Plastic cups, bottles. A Sherwin-Williams paint bucket - BRIGHT WHITE INTERIOR. A tree trunk. A trash can. A dead fish. A kitchen chair. A blue kiddie pool. Tennis balls. A child’s tiny purple shoe. A liquor bottle - Crown Royal.
Driving back through the sodden neighborhood. Is this what a war zone looks like? Folks appear dazed, exhausted, but still, deliberate as they go about in their rubber boots, cleaning up, talking to one another, hugging one another, helping guide cars and trucks and every manner of wheeled, working vehicle through the clogged streets.
The smell is of the earth. Wet mud. Almost like pluff mud in the coastal marshes.
But this is the Midlands, for crying out loud. Who would have thunk it? No one.
The sound is of diesel trucks, delivering dumpsters. Saws, chopping trees. Helicopters, flying overhead. A wet, rolled-up carpet landing on the throw-away pile. Whump.
The neon “OPEN” light is flashing bright in the picture window of the Original Pancake House in Trenholm Plaza. A sign by the door say, “YES, WE’RE OPEN!” The waitress, Melissa, begins to explain that they have no water.
No problem. A warm cup of coffee will do. Little things mean a lot in the middle of a colossal mess.
That is exactly what Wayne Fritz has on his hands – a colossal, financially preposterous mess.
The backyard of his two-story home in the King’s Grant neighborhood near Fort Jackson nestles up to Wildcat Creek.
No flood insurance, Fritz said. But no matter. It’s good to be alive.
Fritz, his wife Melissa, his adult daughter Walker, and the family dog, Cookie, swam to safety from the back porch of their home when the flood – that thing that needs a name – roiled into the house. First the basement, then the garage, and then the first floor.
At 5:05 a.m. Sunday morning, Fritz – 63, an aerospace senior project manager – said he and his wife woke up to “some noise in the house. We thought it might be hail.”
They would discover later that the noise came from bicycles and a lawn mower that were stored in the basement, and because of the rising water, were bumping up against the underneath of the first floor of the house.
At 5:15 a.m., a neighbor alerted the Fritzs to rising water outside.
“I went out and took a look,” Fritz said. “Water was up to the axles of one of our SUVs. I put on some clothes. At 5:25 a.m. we started moving silver and legal documents upstairs … I went to the front door with some towels, thinking I could sandbag it. Then water started coming up through the heat registers. The Oriental rug in the family room started levitating. We stood on the third step of the staircase leading upstairs and my daughter, Walker, led us in a prayer. Then we grabbed Cookie and went to the back door. When I opened it, water cascaded in. We stood at the top of the deck steps and we bailed out. The water was cold. It was very dark and very, very murky.”
Fritz does not remember how long it took for his family to swim to the top of the driveway, which is where the water was cresting, but he remembers a hand reaching down to pull him up out of the abyss.
Meet Steve Cohen, a neighbor, who with his wife, Helga, was standing at the top of the Fritz driveway. Their house was OK, but they were worried about their neighbors and had come over to check on them.
“I started looking around,” Cohen said, “and the next thing I see are all three Fritzs and their dog swimming toward me. We just pulled them out. I told them, ‘Come on, you’re going with us.’ ”
“It was a voice of authority,” Fritz said, “so we just went. We just went. We hugged each other inside Steve’s house and thanked God we were alive.”
Fritz stood underneath a flag used by the British Royal Air Force during War World II. He’s a history buff. The flag is on a pole miraculously still attached to the porch railing of the back deck of his embattled home. It is unfurled and flying.
Fritz stares at it. “That flag represents to me strength under duress, extreme duress.”
His automobiles are totaled. His house is a wreck. His front yard is a home to every wet, soaked and sodden thing you can think of. Still, he leans against the tailgate of a pickup truck parked at the top of the driveway and laughs.
“We’re going to win ‘Yard of the Month’ next month.”
A contractor comes over to say that the floors underneath the carpet, which has all been pulled up by a cast of strangers who simply showed up to help out, is still pretty wet. Not good news.
The 25 fans and 10 large dehumidifiers will have to be kept going.
What the heck.
“I’ve got household insurance,” Fritz said, “but no flood insurance. This is a rebuild out of pocket, but this is how I feel about it. I feel like I have lived a very blessed life. A life rich with friends and acquaintances. I’ve had a good career. A close-knit family. You know, I’ve told people, ‘I’ve been waiting for the hammer to fall, knowing that no one can go through life without some kind of significant challenge.’ In a manner of speaking, I guess this is my hammer.
“But I can clean this up, and compared to some of the things you read and see in this world, this is significant but it is far less than life and death. All sorts of things could have happened, but I am standing. Standing with my family and we are alive.”
Nearing 4 p.m.
Time to go, but Fritz wants to make sure that one more part of this story gets told. The part about people helping people.
“I have been besieged by people, strangers who want to do something. There’ve been people I don’t know in my house packing boxes. They’ve just come out of nowhere to help … So, did I tell the story OK? Because it’s all about kindness, I can tell you that.”
And one more thing. Just one more.
“I want to make sure if somebody reads this, they will be inspired to rise above adversity.”
Nearing 5 p.m.
Driving home on 1-77, after all that has been seen, felt and heard.
Hands on the steering wheel, gripping hard, taking stock of self.
Salley McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.