The aftershocks from the weekend’s historic rain storm continued to shake the Columbia area Wednesday with more dams breaking, more flooding fears and more people dying.
Two employees of a Kentucky-based company who were repairing railroad tracks damaged in the storm died early Wednesday after their vehicle became submerged in flood waters in lower Richland County.
The bodies of Robert Bradford Vance, 58, of Lexington, Ky., and Ricky Allen McDonald, 53, of Chesapeake, Ohio, were pulled from the vehicle in Cedar Creek, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said.
Vance and McDonald were traveling with three co-workers from a job site about 3 a.m. Wednesday when their vehicle drove through a barricade, near the 2100 block of Congaree Road, and fell into the creek, which had washed out the road, Watts said.
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The three other railroad workers were able to escape.
Gov. Nikki Haley and other officials issued warnings about drivers ignoring barricades, citing the accident that killed Vance and McDonald.
“It’s closed because we’re trying to protect you,” she said of barricaded roads.
But a spokesman for R.J. Corman, the Nicholasville, Ky.,-based railroad repair contractor that employed the men, disputed reports its workers had ignored safety warnings.
There was neither a barricade nor any signs on the road, R.J. Corman spokesman Noel Rush said. The company is working with public safety agencies to determine exactly what happened, he said.
The three survivors were flown back to Kentucky to be reunited with their families and receive grief counseling.
“This is a very sad, sad, sad event,” Rush said. “We are very much affected by this. We are praying for the family and friends of our employees.”
At least 17 people have died in South Carolina since more than two feet of rain drenched portions of the state in a storm that has been described as a once-in-1,000-year event.
Nine of the victims died in Richland County, which received more rain on Sunday than the previous three months combined.
The floods also are unearthing caskets from area cemeteries, Watts said.
“We just ask that if anyone notices that, that they call the Sheriff’s Department or city Police Department, and we will respond and take care of those issues as well,” he said.
The coroner would not say where the unearthed caskets are, saying he wanted to avoid generating sightseers. As the coffins are discovered, they are being moved to county facilities where they will be held until further arrangements can be made.
Concerns about dams
Fears about flooding continued more than four days after the severe rain ended.
Waters rose on rivers downstream from the Midlands, putting communities from Conway to Williamsburg on alert.
But more flooding could come to neighborhoods in the Columbia area as well.
Crews worked frantically Wednesday to shore up the Beaver Dam Road dam in the Wildewood community in northeast Richland. County officials suggested about 1,000 nearby residents evacuate as a precaution, but the earthen dam was holding after more than 3,000 sandbags and large rocks were dropped in to reinforce it.
The potential failure of the Beaver dam raised concerns about flooding in Wildewood and down along Jackson Creek, which leads into Arcadia Lakes and Forest Acres.
Still, a seventh dam broke in Richland County on Wednesday — Ulmers Pond on Mill Creek in southeast Columbia.
Statewide, 14 dams have been breached in Richland, Lexington, Aiken, Orangeburg and Lee counties. More than 60 are being monitored.
Richland County has two dams under observation for possible breach in the Sandhills area — Woodlake, also known as Legion Lake, and Briarcliffe.
Haley and the head of the state agency that regulates dams said Wednesday they will examine what happened at the breached and whether more money needs to be spent on inspections after the storm recovery efforts. South Carolina spent $200,000 on the safety of more than 2,300 dams in 2013.
“We have done an outstanding job,” said Catherine Heigel, director of the S.C Department of Health and Environmental Control, which regulates private dams.
Haley said the focus should be on the small portion of dams that failed during a historic storm. “It’s amazing we have not had more issues than we had,” she told reporters.
Haley spoke as Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, visited Columbia on Wednesday.
Another Obama Administration official, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, will visit Columbia and Charleston Friday to view damage and recovery efforts Friday.
Water, road woes continue
As Haley spoke, the city of Columbia continued to work to restore water service after rain ruptured lines.
About 5,000 households were without water Wednesday, down from more than 40,000 the day before. But the city asked customers to conserve water while repair efforts continue.
Crews continued to try to fix a 60-foot breach in the Columbia Canal dike, which threatens the operation of a nearby Columbia water treatment plant.
A second section of the canal’s dike collapsed Wednesday, stalling repair efforts that included dropping one-ton sand bags near a breach.
The breach in the canal forced city official to start building a temporary boulder dam to create a reservoir in the canal. The reservoir would raise the water level so the city water plant can continue providing water to about 188,000 customers in Columbia and lower Richland County.
In neighborhoods, crews have started picking up storm debris.
Columbia began collection Wednesday and will resume garbage collection Thursday. Richland County resumed garbage collection Wednesday. Lexington County is providing extra trash containers to dispose of storm debris.
More than 400 roads and bridge remained closed across South Carolina on Wednesday —including nearly 150 in Richland and Lexington counties, according to the S.C. Department of Transportation.
A 14-mile section of Interstate 95, between Manning and Sardinia, also remained closed. The section of I-95 between I-20 and I-26 remained open only to local traffic.
USC hits the road
The storm also put the brakes on some popular weekend activities.
S.C. Department of Natural Resources suspended deer hunting until Monday in areas hit hard by the severe rains and flooding.
And the University of South Carolina decided to move its football game Saturday to Baton Rouge, La., home of this week’s opponent, LSU. The school said it did not want to stretch law enforcement officers while they work on flood recovery.
“We want to do what’s best for our community here in Columbia. (T)he governor, the (USC) president, law enforcement, they all think this is the right thing to do,” Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier said. “We’re not ready for a ballgame here this Saturday afternoon.”
Staff writers Avery Wilks, Clif LeBlanc, Cassie Cope, Tom Flach and Roddie Burris ad the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader contributed