Record floods and drenching rainfalls Sunday shut down hundreds of roads and closed stretches of interstates across South Carolina, forcing thousands to flee their homes or vehicles.
At least six people – including three from Richland County – were reported to have died in water-related incidents since Thursday.
Numerous bridges over flooding rivers were closed. Rising waters covered streets from the Upstate to Myrtle Beach, Georgetown and Charleston on the coast.
The Columbia area in the Midlands appeared to be one of the hardest-hit areas, and authorities ordered a curfew – from 6 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Monday – in Richland and Lexington counties.
“It’s all going to be bad,” Capt. Robert McCulloch of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, who said the coast was hard hit, too. “Water flows downhill.”
Across the state, some 12,000 customers were estimated to be without power early Sunday evening, the SCE&G utility reported.
Damages were estimated to run into the millions.
The record rainfall – 18 inches or more in some places over the weekend – was severe enough to close a 75-mile stretch of Interstate 95 between Interstates 20 and 26. The heavily traveled highway, through the eastern portion of the state, was not closed during 1989’s Hurricane Hugo.
On Saturday, President Obama declared a state of emergency in South Carolina, authorizing federal disaster-relief agencies to spring into action to coordinate relief efforts.
Already, North Carolina has pledged to send helicopters to help South Carolina. Swift-water rescue teams were being brought in from Tennessee and North Carolina’s Fort Bragg.
Meanwhile, small armies of local law enforcement and firefighters, their numbers increased by officers from state agencies including the Department of Natural Resources and the Highway Patrol, scrambled to close roads and evacuate residents trapped in cars and low-lying apartment complexes and homes.
“It’s not as bad as it’s going to get,” predicted state Transportation Department spokesman Pete Poore. “When the waters go down, that’s when all the damage will be revealed.”
Some of that damage will be to the state’s already crumbling roads and bridges.
Across the state, officials announced hundreds of school closings for Monday. All state courts also will be closed.
“We haven’t seen this level of rain in the Lowcountry in a 1,000 years. That’s how big this is,” said Gov. Nikki Haley at a late Sunday afternoon press conference. “The Congaree River is at its highest level since 1936.”
Across Richland County alone, estimated Sheriff Leon Lott, first responders from the police and fire units pulled “hundreds” of people out of situations where they were endangered by rising waters. Those officers were assisted by citizen volunteers who used their personal boats to rescue people, officials said.
“There likely have been thousands of houses and homes and cars that have had water damage,” Lott said.
In Charleston, rising waters on city streets made sections of some downtown neighborhoods impassable, according to news reports.
In Georgetown, officials stopped traffic from entering the city on U.S. 17 from the north. In Myrtle Beach, dozens of streets remained flooded and closed Sunday afternoon.
In Kershaw County, Sheriff Jim Matthews said, “We’ve got some places where it’s very bad, and there are definitely places where people don’t need to go or they’ll get stuck.”
Among the trouble spots is U.S. 521 near the Sumter-Kershaw county line, where a pond has overflowed onto the road, he said.
Around the Wateree state prison, S.C. 261 is “totally impassable,” Matthews said.
Around the Boykin Mill pond, south of Interstate 20, a dam that holds back the waters in a huge pond is in danger of breaking Sunday night, he said.
“If that floods, it will be a massive water issue,” Matthews said. Fortunately, the area below the dam is largely uninhabited, he said.
A countywide curfew is in effect in Kershaw from 7 p.m. Sunday to 7 a.m. Monday, he said.
Questions also remained about the quality of drinking water in an unknown number of areas.
In Columbia late Sunday afternoon, for example, thousands of people found their taps either produced no water or badly discolored water.
Officials said they did not know when safe drinking water service might be restored, urging residents to boil any water they got from their taps.
Around Columbia, flood levels on Sunday afternoon caused the state Transportation Department to close two interstate bridges that cross the Broad River – the I-20 bridge west of Dutch Square Mall and the I-126 bridge that is a major Lexington County-Columbia commuter corridor.
Richland County coroner Gary Watts said late Sunday night that the three water-related deaths were all in the Columbia area, and all involved people who were trapped in their vehicles in rising water on Sunday.
One of the victims was a young woman who died on Sunset Drive in north Columbia, Watts said. Of the other two fatalities, one was Devine Street in the vicinity of Fort Jackson Boulevard, and the other on Garners Ferry Road, Watts said. He added that more details will be available on Monday.