The State reporter escapes Columbia flooding through car’s sunroof

By Jeff Wilkinson


State newspaper reporter Jeff Wilkinson looks at some of the flood-damaged items from his home on Downing Street. The home was overtaken by flood waters and Wilkinson had to swim to safety.
State newspaper reporter Jeff Wilkinson looks at some of the flood-damaged items from his home on Downing Street. The home was overtaken by flood waters and Wilkinson had to swim to safety. gmelendez@thestate.com

Editor’s note: Jeff Wilkinson covers business and the military for The State.

My girlfriend, Dana McManus, woke up about 3:30 Sunday morning to find that the power had gone off at my house on Downing Street, an old residential neighborhood that runs parallel to Fort Jackson Boulevard along a passive waterway called Gills Creek. The heavy rains had finally come.

We had watched the forecasts for a week. They predicted a torrential rain driven by a northern high, a southern low and fueled by a hurricane out to sea beyond Charleston that would inundate the state in a narrow funnel from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.

We had scoffed on Saturday when only a light rain fell most of the day. When we went to Bi-Lo that evening to buy dinner, it had settled into a list mist. We joked: It’s a torrential mist. A historic mist.

But when Dana awoke, the rains had come, and come hard. I woke up and joined her in the living room of the little 900-square-foot house, which I bought precisely because of the huge back yard and the picturesque swamp behind it.

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Wilkinson’s house jwilkinson@thestate.com Jeff Wilkinson

Downing Street is just below Lake Katherine, a body of water that’s part of the Gills Creek watershed.

Wilkinson’s back yard jwilkinson@thestate.com Jeff Wilkinson

The swamp had turned into a pond from what had seemed like weeks of very light drizzle.

Jeff Wilkinson jwilkinson@thestate.com

But the water was rising very slowly, and being a reporter, I wanted to stick around and see if the water at some point might lap up against the 1950s houses that sat a few hundred yards away from Fort Jackson, built as homes for soldiers working there. It was an opportunity to get some timely quotes for the thestate.com from the scene of the “disaster.”

The power soon returned, and Dana and I proceeded to monitor the progression of the water at 15 or 20 minute intervals. We also packed up some clothes and electronics just in case the water might rise to the house, which is on the very edge of the 100-year flood plain. We also threw some items up on tables and beds.

Again, just in case.

‘There’s a foot of water!’

We had seen heavy rains before. And it was no problem for the creek to handle them.

I don’t remember exact times after this. I wasn’t watching the clock. I was watching the Weather Channel, which told me we were in the worst of the deluge. Not so bad I thought: the pond hadn’t grown that much and was still a good 20 yards from the back steps and down a slight incline.

No worries.

After another 20-minuge interval, Dana said, “I think I’ll check the front yard this time.” She did, and exclaimed, “Oh my God, there’s a foot of water!”

Water had topped dams upstream, and all that water was now boiling up around us.

“We have to get out, now!” I said, and we splashed through the water to my Honda CRV, which I had bought in December 2013 as a Christmas present to myself.

As soon as we got in the car and backed into the street we were swept downstream toward the lowest point in the neighborhood. The car was filling up with water at a terrifying rate. The doors would not open and the windows would not roll down.

I reached up and flicked the button that controlled the sun roof. My friend Mohammad Hamad, a refugee from Fallujah, Iraq, who was a member of the Knight Ridder team I had worked with as a war correspondent in that country in 2003, insisted that I buy it “to let the fresh air in.” But it was a waste of money, I argued. I would never use it.

Miraculously, the sun roof opened and I climbed through and sat on the roof, legs still dangling into the car. The water was halfway up the windows now and Dana was struggling to get through the roof with a bag that had her tablet, jewelry and other things she didn’t want to lose.

“Just drop it!” I shouted. She did, and climbed through the sunroof and sat there beside me on top of the car. The water was now almost to the roof. It would soon be completely under water.

I somehow had emerged with a large white golf umbrella which I popped open. And for a few surreal minutes we sat on top of the white SUV, a white umbrella over our heads floating in a sea of brown water.

I was shouting, “Hello! Hello!” And soon a man leaned out of the second story of a two-story house about 30 yards away and shouted back, “If you can swim here I’ll pull you up.” He lowered a blanket out of the window.

We jumped off the car and into the water, which was up to my chin, and I am six-foot-one. We bobbed and swam to the neighbor’s house. Dana — a former Army sergeant and an excellent swimmer — was holding her purse above her head.

Rather than try to shimmy up the blanket, which looked dubious at best, we scrambled onto the front porch and tried the front door. The water was equalized on each side and the door opened easily.

The house from which reporter Jeff Wilkinson was rescued. On the night of the flood, water reached the yellow trim line on the screened porch. The house's occupants escaped by crawling out a second-story window, onto the porch roof and into the boat. jwilkinson@thestate.com Jeff Wilkinson

We bobbed or swam through the flooded living room, couch cushions and debris floating around us. I remember the water in the house being about five feet deep. Dana believes it was higher, but she is shorter than me.

We scrambled up the stairs and were met by a terrified family — three adults, two teenagers, four dogs and a 400-pound grandmother who couldn’t walk. I’m sorry to say I don’t know all the family member’s names, but I learned later that the grandmother’s name is Nina.

“You saved our lives,” I said.

It was Nina’s house. It has been paid off for years and she doesn’t have flood insurance, like many people in my neighborhood.

I didn’t know if I had flood insurance either. I had purchased a one-year policy from the USAA financial services company at the insistence of the mortgage company in 2012, but didn’t know if it had rolled over into my monthly payment since then.

Rescued by boat

We stayed in the upper floor for about three hours, I think, watching the water rising up the stairwell and trying to figure out what we would do when it reached us. We found a hand axe, and I suggested that we could crawl into the attic and hack through the roof, which many people did during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

But how would we get Nina up there?

The family gave us some dry clothes — a nylon track suit for me, shorts and a T-shirt for Dana.

Dana and I had lost our cellphones in the car. A family member in the house, Stephanie, had hers and we repeatedly called 911. But there was no answer.

Finally, 911 called back, getting the number from a phone log, I assume. The caller said they would do what they could.

The only phone number we could remember was Dana’s best friend, Kellie Rego. We called her, and Kellie sent out a Facebook post about our status.

Occasionally during this time I would shout “hello!” out a bedroom window facing Kilbourne Road. Finally, I saw an ambulance that had pulled up to the water on the street about a block away. An EMT in a yellow slicker was standing in front. He or she waved, then went away.

After what seemed like an hour later — I’m not sure — one of the kids in the house, Delaney, saw someone standing on the street.

“Help!” she shouted.

The person — a civilian — shouted back, asking if we could get out through a window if he got a boat there. “Yes!” we shouted back.

Soon, two men in a large camouflaged fishing boat pulled up in the back yard, then circled to the eave of the front porch.

“Women and children first,” I said, then realized how stupid it sounded.

Delaney and Stephanie crawled out the window and slid down the porch roof into the boat, which was level with the roof’s edge. The father, Clif, insisted Dana and I follow, then the four dogs.

The boat took us to high ground, where we were met by a female first responder in a yellow slicker — perhaps the EMT I had hailed. We clamored out of the boat.

High ground where survivors were dropped off jwilkinson@thestate.com Jeff Wilkinson

The rain was coming down in sheets. Not knowing what else to do, we began walking several blocks to the Econolodge on Jackson Boulevard.

I wish I would have gotten the names of the two men in the boat and the EMT, but things were a little chaotic. I heard later that it took eight firefighters to get Nina out of the house.

We rented a room at the hotel, but there was no power and the phones were not working. But it had water and we showered, washing away the nasty residue from the flood water. A blessing!

Unbelievable damage

Then we walked to the McDonald’s at Wildcat Road and Garners Ferry to try to get some food. It was after noon and we were starving.

McDonalds was closed, but the scene was unbelievable — water well over the bridge, swamped cars, dozens of onlookers and TV news crews. (Our rescue had been filmed by a news crew.)

Hoping to get a ride to Dana’s house in Forest Acres, we approached a crew from WIS and Dana agreed to be interviewed. In retrospect that was a smart thing to do. It went out live and was rebroadcast often, so our friends then knew we were alive and safe.

We approached a Columbia police officer who said there was no way to get to Dana’s home near Richland Mall — a house we worried would be underwater as well.

The officer gave us a ride to a convenience store on Garners Ferry Road, where we stocked up on snacks and sodas. A private rescue team from Pennsylvania in a huge black truck hauling an air boat gave us a ride back.

But with no power or phone we decided to move on. I solicited a ride from an engineer who was surveying damage at the new shopping center on Jackson Boulevard that has Michael’s and PetSmart. It was under what looked like six feet of water.

He took us to the Days Inn on Garners Ferry via I-77 (the Wildcat intersection was under water) which had power and phones, but no water. The clerk looked up the number for USAA.

We collapsed in the room. I called the insurance company. Indeed my flood insurance had rolled over. Thank the Lord in heaven!

As an aside: Last year, I thought about challenging the mandatory flood insurance. The flood line is on my property, but my house has a tall crawl space and might be above it. But, thank goodness, I was too lazy to go through all the surveying and paperwork.

Again, we didn’t have our cell phones and couldn’t contact Dana’s parents or my family, all of whom live out of state, because we didn’t have their numbers. We called Kellie on Monday morning after a mostly sleepless night of worry about Dana’s house. Kellie, who was also flooded in in Granby, posted our status on our Facebook pages, hoping to get the word out.

At daylight Monday morning, we rented a car at Enterprise on Garners Ferry. The front desk clerk called her boyfriend — a member of the S.C. Air National Guard named Matthew, who gave us a ride because no taxis were available.

The only way to get to Dana’s house, we found out, was down I-77 to Shop Road, up Assembly Street to Gervais Street, then down Trenholm Road. I stopped briefly at The State newspaper and blasted out a quick Facebook message — family alerted — and told everyone what had happened.

Dana’s house was high and dry on a small hill — with both water and power — but houses around it were flooded. We showered and changed, and went out in search of what we needed most: phones.

We tried Walmart, but the store was swamped and the employees weren’t taking time to activate phones. The line at the electronics desk was 50 deep with people buying water and groceries.

We were able to get to my house, fearing it would be under water. It wasn’t. The water had receded as quickly as it came up, but there had been about three feet inside.

The pictures and awards on the wall were fine along with my late father’s war medals. There were some clothes in the closets, but the dressers were swamped. The items we had put on tables and beds were fine.

Miraculously, the fish in my aquarium had survived and are now being boarded at Pet Supply Plus in Five Points with a sign that says they are fish flood survivors and not for sale. The two cats — Boy Cat and Lil Bit — were nowhere to be found.

Tuesday we couldn’t get back into the neighborhood because of fear more dams would break. Wednesday I went to the house and began cleanup. Dana is a national sales rep for Big Red Box, a dumpster broker, and they were very busy, to say the least.

Volunteer help amazing

As I stood stunned and exhausted in front of my wrecked house, not knowing where to start, an amazing thing happened. People started showing up.

Charlie Sterne and his two sons, who live on Shady Lane but weren’t flooded, showed up and pitched in. Then an attorney named Kevin Sandifer. They pulled all of the ruined furniture out of the house.

“I just want to help,” each of them said.

Someone dropped off a tray of Subway sandwiches. Someone else a case of water.

My editor, Paul Osmundson, brought a phone I had sent by Fedex to the newspaper and some newsprint to wrap dishes and glassware. He returned later with a credit card sent by FedEx that I desperately needed.

Some University of South Carolina students arrived and hauled out debris. Then a youth group from Shandon Baptist Church pitched in on the cleanup and packed up all the dishes and items that hadn’t been damaged.

The number of people who stopped by offering food, water, clothing, trucks and trailers was overwhelming. By 4 p.m the house was empty except for a few items of furniture I’m going to try to save.

Michael McMahon, a USAA adjuster, was on the phone constantly walking me through what to do as he drove 23 hours from Colorado Springs, Colo.

I contracted a cleanup crew through Servpro — Dan Shay from northern Virginia, who had arrived in Columbia the day before. As I write on Friday, they have finished the cleanup and stripped the drywall, floors, kitchen and bathroom.

The crew even found Boy Cat, who had a nasty gash on his paw. Dr. Shawn Verbrick fixed him up even though her business — The Cat Clinic on Trenholm — had been flooded and she was just there cleaning up.

We were still looking for Lil Bit on Friday.

My friend and former colleague Jeff Stensland of USC and his wife, Julie, washed not only all of my surviving clothes, but all the laundry at Dana’s house as well.

Amazing. Thank you all so much.

My house is now an empty shell. But my story will end well.

I will have a new house with all the improvements I always wanted to make. I will have a new car. And I have new friends.

But this will be much more difficult for many of the people in my neighborhood and the city. They have lost everything and have no insurance. For them I ask you to pray, be generous and help.