The ringing phone roused Aneesah Smith from a deep slumber one rainy Sunday morning last October. Her fiancé, Sampson Pringle, was calling from his truck, which was stuck in floodwaters rising over Decker Boulevard.
Pringle could see rescue workers nearby and expected help shortly, Smith said. Everything would be fine soon.
“No worry in his voice,’’ Smith said. “Everybody always asks me that: ‘Did he seem worried?’ No. He seemed like he was a man on his way home.”
But the rescuers never reached him, and Smith never spoke to her fiancé again. Not long after the couple hung up, the 30-year-old Columbia resident was swept away by the relentless torrent.
It took two days to recover Pringle’s body. Firefighters found him in Cary Lake, just downstream from where his truck broke down. Pringle left behind Smith, two daughters, his mother and two sisters.
Pringle’s story is one of the most tragic of the thousands that emerged from a natural disaster that caught many by surprise the morning of Oct. 4, 2015, and in the days that followed. Homes filled with water and muck. Roads cracked, and dams crumbled. Drinking water became too contaminated to drink.
Pringle was among nine people killed in Columbia. Nineteen died statewide.
True, South Carolina had braced for Hurricane Joaquin, which churned off the coast in the days before the flood. But a more potent storm — one that had been gathering for decades — caught the Midlands and the rest of the state by surprise. The rain fell across a concrete landscape, then overwhelmed the network of small streams and lakes that circulate through the Midlands. The same force that swept Pringle away tested dams that were infrequently inspected, if they were regulated at all.
A year later, some homes are being rebuilt, but others are boarded up and could remain that way for a while. State regulators and politicians wrestle with ways to ensure dams stand up better to storms.
And the grief? That never subsides.
“I’m still sad and in disbelief,” Smith said recently. “It’s been 11 months. But I can’t believe it even now. It’s still so hard.”
This is the story of how such a thing could happen.
Forecasters and state emergency officials warned of severe weather the weekend of Oct. 3, but across the state, life proceeded more or less as usual. In the Upstate, for instance, Clemson University defeated Notre Dame in a downpour that soaked fans but wasn’t considered nasty enough to postpone the much-anticipated football game.
In Columbia, two hours to the southeast, dreary weather didn’t keep everyone indoors. Visitors to the Capital City could be found walking along the Congaree River shoreline or eating a leisurely lunch. Traffic around town was routine as a drizzle fell. One Florida resident visiting Columbia told The State the weather didn’t seem that bad.
But by midnight, the rain had intensified. More than 16.6 inches fell in the Columbia area that Sunday. That weekend, rainfall exceeded 20 inches in parts of the Midlands. Totals were even higher in the Lowcountry.
It had been 26 years since Hurricane Hugo swamped the state, and the memories of that powerful storm had perhaps faded in some people’s minds. By Sunday morning, however, residents were dangerously reacquainted with natural disaster.
“People were shocked at the devastation,” state climatologist Hope Mizzell said. “The flooding we had was over and beyond what people typically see, particularly here in the Midlands. You have to go historically pretty far back to have a flood of that magnitude.”
According to an analysis by geographers at the University of South Carolina, the bad weather and flooding resulted primarily from a stalled weather system, as if the storm had “directed a fire hose” of tropical moisture directly at the Palmetto State.
Dump a foot and a half of rain in two days across a pristine landscape, and damage almost certainly will follow. Dump the same amount over an urbanized area like Columbia, and damage can become catastrophic.
When rain falls on a land still in a largely natural state, some moisture soaks into the ground, explained Erich Miarka, director of the Gills Creek Watershed Association, a nonprofit group devoted to protecting the drainage basin. Much of what is not soaked up by the soil collects in swampy areas, which act like sponges.
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The remaining water — runoff — flows into streams and rivers. These waterways can become swollen and cause floods even where man has left little footprint. However, flooding becomes more likely and more dangerous in areas where development has occurred. Rooftops and parking lots cover soil and displace vegetation that would otherwise soak up water. Swamps are filled in.
Additionally, many creeks and streams that run through Columbia have been straightened or “channelized,” increasing the velocity of the water running through them, and thus its destructive force.
“You pass the floodwater downstream, and it gets worse downstream,” said Allan James, a University of South Carolina geography professor who specializes in studying the flow of water and flooding.
The pace of water flow also quickens where soil and sediment has washed into lake beds and creek channels, like a thumb over the opening of a garden hose. Spillways below dams can create the same effect. The ponds and lakes the dams create can help control flooding — but the dams can also make it worse if they rupture, James said.
After decades of development, the Midlands simply absorbs less precipitation and puts less of a brake on runoff than it once did.
And “not only have we taken away the creek’s ability to store its own floodwater, we’ve actually filled those in (those areas) with structures and buildings and developments,” Miarka said. “We have put a lot of dollars and a lot of infrastructure into these flood-prone areas.”
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The flood’s destructive force overwhelmed homes like those on Burwell Lane and Timberlane Drive. It disrupted mom-and-pop businesses like Forest Lake Gardens and the Pavlovich Ballet School. It rumbled through heavily traveled corridors like Devine Street and Bluff Road.
On Eastshore Drive, artist Christian Thee stepped out of bed that Sunday morning and into a pool of water. The flood had crept under the doors of his house and covered the floors. When he looked outside, the scene was even more unbelievable — the nearby Lower Rockyford and Spring lakes had overflowed their banks and turned his property into an island.
“The house was surrounded by water,’’ said Thee, who spent much of the day trying to clean up after a disaster he never anticipated. “Luckily, I had friends who showed up and helped. It was a mess, just crazy. This had never happened before.’
All over South Carolina, people awoke to similar scenes. The storm blasted the coast and drenched areas near Charleston and Georgetown.
But the deluge was particularly harsh on the Midlands.
Entire neighborhoods were submerged. Streets literally became rivers: In the Woodlake Drive community off Trenholm Road, people traveled from place to place in small motor boats, through water three to four feet deep. Young children, the elderly and pets — in some cases, even able-bodied adults — were ferried to safety by police, firefighters and volunteers.
Clay Lovelace, his wife, their baby and the family dog were among those rescued by boat that day from their house on Shady Lane, near Lake Katherine.
“With a brand new baby, we just wanted to make sure we got out of that situation,’’ said Lovelace, a 32-year-old sales manager. “It’s one of those stories you don’t forget, like Hurricane Hugo. You know where you were at the time.”
Neighbors on Forest Lake, just below the Spring Lake dam, watched in disbelief. At one point that afternoon, it was impossible to see the dam because so much water was pouring over its top.
A man driving his truck over the road across the dam was swept into Forest Lake, where he sat up to his neck in water for most of the day until rescuers arrived. Water crashing across the dam was intensified by the failure of another dam upstream at Cary Lake.
In Lexington, Main Street was impassable for a few hours because the historic Old Mill Pond dam ruptured after at least two other dams upstream also failed.
By midday, the downpour forced SCE&G to take the rare step of releasing water into the lower Saluda River from Lake Murray to protect its dam. The hundreds of millions of gallons sent into the river for two days caused it to overflow into the Pine Glen neighborhood, forcing evacuation of families in its 134 homes.
Kinley and Rawls creeks in the Irmo-St. Andews area also went over their banks, flooding homes and roads in the Challedon, Coldstream and Whitehall neighborhoods.
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“People went to bed looking at thunderstorms,” Irmo Fire Chief Mike Sonefeld said. “Nobody was expecting anything of this magnitude.”
When the waters receded, they left a financial headache and emotional anguish in their wake. Thee, for instance, has fought insurance companies over repayment for damage to his house. His partner, who had handled the couple’s business affairs, died several years ago.
“I hated to go through all that by myself,’’ said Thee, who said finances have been tight since his partner died. “Trying to deal with insurance companies has been a nightmare. In the meantime, I’ve got things that haven’t been taken care of.
“This was heartbreaking. There is a certain numbness that creeps over you.”
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Not all rebuilding has taken place in utter despair.
Cathy and Chris Cobbs’ flood-damaged home on Lake Katherine should be finished around Thanksgiving, but the couple won’t wait that long to host their friends. They plan to mark the flood’s anniversary with a neighborhood get-together on their new front porch — a feature their old home lacked, but was purposefully included in the new design.
The Cobbses plan many uncloistered hours on that porch, the better to keep touch with neighbors who once were almost strangers.
The flood “made us realize we had lost that connection,” said Cathy Cobbs, whose family moved to Columbia eight years ago. “... We are so grateful that people we barely knew came and helped us. This is a new lease on getting to know each other.”
The flood was one of the most destructive disasters in South Carolina’s history. State emergency-management officials say the flood caused $2.2 billion in damage across South Carolina. Richland County estimates its share at $356.3 million, Columbia at $145 million and Lexington County and its municipalities at $62.7 million.
Forty-five dams in Richland and Lexington counties either broke or were breached. In addition to the nine people killed, hundreds lost their homes and possessions.
In the wake of such profound loss, the Cobbses are like many who are rebuilding with newfound priorities, according to a University of South Carolina study.
Researchers Sayward Harrison, Xiaming Li, Shan Qiao and Yao Zhang interviewed 39 flood victims and local officials. They found many displayed resilience and greater appreciation for their neighbors. Other lessons include heightened awareness that floods can occur along seemingly innocuous waterways, not just near major rivers or after a direct blast from a hurricane, the USC researchers say.
A lot of people in the Midlands are back on solid footing. Many homes and businesses have been repaired or are being rebuilt. Most roads damaged by the flood have been fixed and reopened.
Much of the help has come in the way of insurance payments and disaster-relief money from the federal government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided more than $160 million in public and individual assistance, state officials say. Meanwhile, homeowners in four parts of Richland County are taxing themselves extra to rebuild and strengthen dams that created their neighborhood lakes. Some homes and businesses are being elevated above expected flood levels as a precaution.
But Vince Osborne is among the many who still need help.
The flood smashed his home, gutting the inside and leaving him to face last winter in substandard housing. He hopes to sell the house as part of a government program to buy up flood-prone structures, rather than rebuilding them in harm’s way. The federal government has at least $36 million to assist that effort. Additionally, Lexington County plans to acquire and demolish 65 flood-prone homes in the Irmo-St. Andrews area, Richland County is proposing that for 63 homes and 15 businesses in unspecified neighborhoods and Columbia is looking at that for 40 homes so far.
But the federal government still has not made a decision about Osborne’s home, nearly a year after the storm hit.
“It’s a slow process,” Osborne said. “... That part has been frustrating. We are in limbo.”
Like Osborne, many people still are hurting. Some lakeside homeowners say they don’t have money to repair the dams that held back the lakes that kept up their property values.
And the United Way of the Midlands says it has found at least 1,142 people in Richland County who sought help from FEMA but whose needs remain unmet. It could take another year to get a full accounting of unmet needs for the 22,000 people in Richland County who sought FEMA assistance after the storm.
Jennifer Moore, senior director for the financial stability council at the United Way, said a lot of problems center on basic needs, such as moldy, leaky homes. Many people could not afford to leave, so they deal with those problems every day.
“A lot of the mold is really a serious and dangerous issue people have,” she said. “A lot of folks need just basic roof repairs. It’s been so long since the flood that the damage that occurred initially after the flood has gotten worse.”
While many have suffered property damage, most didn’t go through what the Pringle family experienced.
Taylor Pringle said she’ll never fully recover from the death of her big brother, Sampson, swept away by the flood as he awaited rescuers on Decker Boulevard. After he died, she went to the spot where his truck stalled almost every day for a week to grieve — and to learn more about the event that killed him.
“I found myself trying to just recreate what happened,’’ she said. “I was trying to find closure in something I wasn’t getting. I don’t know what truly happened.’’