Gene Sealy paced the halls of the Forest Acres Police Department’s gutted first floor, surveying flood damage in each room and showing where parts of walls were ripped away and furniture thrown out.
“It was home,” Sealy, police chief of the Richland County community since 1994, said Monday as he looked around his former office. “This whole place was.”
It has been a trying few weeks for Sealy and and his two dozen officers.
In nearly three weeks, they buried one of their own and evacuated their station because of unexpected flooding.
But Sealy said he is “extremely proud” as his officers soldiered on despite grief and hardship.
The first blow came when officer Greg Alia was fatally shot Sept. 30 while responding to a call about a suspicious person at Richland Mall.
His death jarred the small, normally quiet city where no police officer had been killed in the line of duty since 1974 – when Sealy was a part-time dispatcher.
“It’s a small department. It’s more like a family,” he said. “In a small department, you know everybody’s name. You usually know their wife, their children. Officers get together even after work and socialize or go to ball games, those types of things.”
After three days of vigils and memorials and an outpouring of community support for Alia’s family and the department, the slain officer was buried Oct. 3 during light rain. Hours later, that rain came down much harder.
Before sunrise the next day, Forest Acres police faced another catastrophe as flash floods came after a record rain, forcing residents from homes and a grieving police force into action.
“Nobody in their wildest dreams would have thought that we would have had this type of flooding,” Sealy said. “For those of us that have been here a good long while, we’ve seen flooding, but nothing to the magnitude that we had Saturday night.”
The police station was flooded about 18 inches and raw sewage pushed up through the station’s floor drains, said City Manager Mark Williams.
Alia’s car, parked in front of the station as a memorial, was ruined. “It was heartbreaking to see that,” Sealy said.
With their station flooded, officers worked out of nearby Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.
They shared that space for a week with National Guard members and others responding to the damage.
The Rev. Paul Wollner, Good Shepherd’s senior pastor, said churches, civic organizations, law enforcement agencies and restaurants took turns serving meals.
“The response of the community was not only related to the flood, but also a way to support the department after Officer Alia’s death and also to give thanks for what they do every day,” he said.
With so much going on, it was time to get to work, Sealy said.
Like other agencies in the Midlands and across South Carolina, the department worked tirelessly the week after the flood to maintain order while keeping people away from sinkholes and washed-out bridges and roads.
“Everybody had to get back and get busy, so no, they didn’t have a lot of time to sit around and think about what had just taken place even though they were well aware what had just taken place,” Sealy said.
That includes the officers on Alia’s tight-knit shift, Sealy said.
“The biggest thing that I’ve gained from that shift that worked directly with Greg was that they were all professional and in light of the tragedy that happened on Sept. 30, they’ve been here with us every day helping and doing what they were supposed to be,” Sealy said. “They were here. They were doing their duty as police officers in Forest Acres.”
The officers have gone out of their way in recent weeks to embrace Alia’s widow, Kassy.
She has been in contact with the group as often as three times a day, sharing dinners and relying on them for things her husband used to provide.
When she wasn’t sure whether she needed to leave her Forest Acres-area home during the flooding, she called officers and they kept her in the loop. Another officer has offered to train her in CPR, Kassy Alia said.
“It’s really been a source of comfort for me over the past few weeks,” she said. “It would never replace Greg, but it’s really helped with the transition.”
Things had mostly calmed down at the station on Monday.
Sealy and his staff are crowded upstairs in the station while municipal court moved to nearby City Hall. Dispatchers are working out of a tractor-trailer next door.
The police chief – whose office is now in a room previously occupied by detectives – isn’t sure about the building’s fate.
But Williams said the police station will be renovated, not razed.
Now that the damaged walls and flooring has been removed, repairs are the next step, he said.
But there is no timetable for when the project will be completed, Williams said.
Sealy said the department is working now to get back to a full staff of 27 police officers, but he is not sure if things will ever return to normal.
“I don’t think it will ever be normal because everything from this point forward will be different,” Sealy said. “But we’ll certainly get back into a routine.”