Only a day after it looked like Columbia might escape the worst of Hurricane Florence, the capital city, along with nearly all of South Carolina, on Wednesday found itself squarely in the path of what’s predicted to be the worst storm to hit the region in decades, if not ever.
Ahead of Florence’s expected arrival in the Midlands over the weekend, local officials were preparing Wednesday.
“This appears to be a storm unlike any we’ve seen,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “That can be disconcerting. You’ve just got to remain confident that your protocols are in place, that people are working on the same goal, and you’ve got to remain prayerful.”
The forecast for the Midlands as of Wednesday afternoon expected Florence to bring 3 to 7 inches of rain and winds of 20 to 30 mph between Friday and Sunday.
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Among Columbia and Richland County’s current preparations:
▪ Sandbags are on hand to protect infrastructure throughout the city, especially in low-lying areas prone to flooding. The city’s supply of sand is not available to the public, however. Residents are encouraged to purchase their own sand at hardware stores.
▪ Road barricades have been stationed near areas and streets that are known to flood. If needed, police will set up those barricades in dangerous areas.
▪ Richland County is staging “hundreds of buses and ambulances” at Columbia Place Mall on Two Notch Road.
▪ The Columbia/Richland County Fire Department is filling up vehicles with fuel, getting chainsaws ready to take care of downed trees and checking generators at all its stations. The department is staffed at normal levels for now but is adding standby crews for the weekend.
▪ The Columbia/Richland County 911 call center is normally staffed, and staff levels will be adjusted based on call volume and demand. During the historic floods of 2015, operators fielded nearly 5,000 calls to 911 in 12 hours, including hundreds of calls for water rescues.
“If there’s an emergency, we encourage people to call 911,” Benjamin said Wednesday. For less urgent issues, people should call 803-252-2911 or 803-545-3300. “Be thoughtful and responsible and, obviously, lets not put ourselves in dangerous areas, driving through flooded areas and the like.”
▪ Curbside trash and recycling pickup remain on their normal schedules for now. Residents are warned that strong winds might blow carts into the streets.
▪ Storm drains are being inspected and cleared in low-lying areas that are prone to flooding. Creeks are being cleared of debris to allow for proper flow of water.
▪ Trees and limbs are being trimmed throughout the city.
▪ There are no curfew plans at this time. Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott will advise city and county leaders on making any curfew-related decisions. The city and county issued curfews for multiple nights in the aftermath of the October 2015 storm.
As Florence approaches, the memory of disastrous flooding in 2015 remains fresh in the minds of Columbia-area residents and officials. That experience has helped prepare the city to brace for the coming storm, Benjamin said.
“We do have the value of experience and hindsight to help us prepare for Florence that we did not have in the wake of Joaquin (in 2015). And we’re going to leverage that experience,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin urged residents to be prepared with food and supplies and to stay abreast of the news as Florence draws nearer.
“We weathered that (2015) storm because we came together as one city,” he said. “Let’s remember that we are, indeed, our brother’s keeper. Let’s look out for each other. ... If we work together, we’ll come through this together.”