Lessons from disastrous 2015 flood fresh for Columbia as Hurricane Florence now looms

Flooding damage and recovery scenes in Columbia, South Carolina

Flooding damage and recovery scenes from throughout Columbia, SC on Monday, October 5, 2015.
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Flooding damage and recovery scenes from throughout Columbia, SC on Monday, October 5, 2015.

Each time a hurricane sets its sights on South Carolina, 2015 doesn’t seem so long ago.

The memory of historic flooding three years ago — fueled, in part, by an offshore hurricane at the time — still induces pangs of anxiety for Columbia residents and officials as the Carolinas brace for Hurricane Florence, forecast to be the worst storm to hit the region in decades, if not ever.

Some 20 inches of rain in the first five days of October 2015 caught the Columbia area off guard, causing devastating destruction. The city wasn’t fully prepared for what hit it then, but local leaders believe they’ve learned a thing or two from that disaster and hope they are better prepared them for future disasters.

“There’s probably not a day that goes by for me, personally, that I don’t have (something) that reminds me of the flood of 2015,” Columbia city manager Teresa Wilson said. “Now we’ve been through one of those major experiences, so we acknowledge what our vulnerabilities are still, as much as we’ve done.”

Hurricane Florence’s track remained uncertain Tuesday, with the Columbia area possibly outside the path of most danger or possibly slated for tropical-storm conditions. But Columbia officials were preparing to respond to potential disaster, whether locally or regionally, if necessary.

Lingering damage from the 2015 storm could affect the outcome of Florence and other storms in Columbia in a number of ways, including some positive.

The Columbia Canal, the main source of drinking water for 188,000 people in the capital city, still is not permanently repaired after a major breach during the 2015 flood. A sturdy rock dam has been the temporary fix for the past three years. But the cost of permanent repair — an estimated $169 million — is what’s holding off the work, as city officials continue to lobby the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funds to do so.

“We have not asked for a penny more than what experts have told us is necessary to repair the canal,” Wilson said. “We understand that FEMA has to look at communities all across the country. We want to remain on their top-priority list.”

In light of the 2015 breach, the canal system operates “vastly different” than it did three years ago, said Clint Shealy, the city’s water manager. Unclean water is treated differently, the emergency reservoir at the canal has been cleaned and has increased capacity, and officials have new ways of controlling the amount of water entering the canal, Shealy said.

“There’s still things that can happen, and we still operate in a diminished condition,” Shealy said, acknowledging the canal’s vulnerabilities in the absence of a permanent repair. But, he said, “we do feel like we’ve got a robust solution in place, and we’ve got backups in place. ... If the worst were to happen, we’re ready, and we’ve got a plan we can put in place.”

While many dams across South Carolina that were damaged in the 2015 storm have been repaired, some in Columbia’s Gills Creek watershed — including Fort Jackson’s Semmes Lake dam, which contributed to deadly flooding in east Columbia — have not been repaired. Some of those damaged dams, including Semmes Lake, are no longer holding back any bodies of water, so potential flooding in some areas could be less of a worry in that respect.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control is inspecting dams across the state ahead of Florence. For the most part, the agency says, dams in South Carolina are in better shape to withstand a major hurricane and rain storm than they were in 2015, The State reported earlier this week.

One of the most concerning effects of the 2015 flood was the number of water-line breaks across the city. Separate from the canal breach, many breaks were caused by gushing creeks and damaged roads and bridges, and they threatened the quantity and quality of water available to Columbia water customers for days after the storm.

“We were hemorrhaging water,” Shealy said. “We had so many breaks in critical locations that were already flooded, we had trouble finding where they were.”

Since 2015, many of those broken water lines have not just been repaired but relocated underneath creeks, as opposed to above them. Should creeks rise dangerously again, many of those lines will be less vulnerable to breaking in the future, Shealy said.

Dozens of homes and businesses destroyed by the 2015 floods will never be repaired but are slated to be bought out by government disaster-recovery funds, which are only just now coming through.

Those properties, some of the most flood-vulnerable in the Columbia area, will be turned into permanent green spaces. If they flood again, the impact would be less devastating than in 2015 and could actually help lessen flooding in areas around them.

“You’re removing that property from a hazardous situation,” said Missy Caughman, Columbia’s flood-recovery manager. “It’s something you never really want to encourage to have to be done, but at the same time, it’s for the benefit of the larger community to be able to have that space.”

In addition to the physical repairs and improvements the city has made since 2015, Columbia has beefed up its staffing and internal procedures to be better prepared for disasters, Wilson said.

The city hired its first emergency management director, Harry Tinsley, in 2016. It’s a position Wilson had been considering for some time until the 2015 flooding sealed the deal. With Tinsley’s help, city officials believe they have improved emergency communication, preparation and response strategies — including better coordination among city departments and local agencies and a better system of tracking resources that are being spent so they can later be reimbursed, Wilson said.

Wilson said the city hopes to use its experience since 2015 to pass along helpful knowledge to other communities, especially smaller ones with fewer resources, to assist in disaster planning, response and recovery. Columbia also is prepared to send resources, including people, to help out along the South Carolina coast and in North Carolina in Florence’s wake if necessary and if those resources aren’t needed locally, Wilson said.

“You can never be fully prepared for everything,” Caughman said. “But you have to walk away from every event knowing and learning something. Otherwise, you’re not doing a service to your community. We’re not letting a disaster go to waste.”

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