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Residents: Not enough warning of Lake Murray release

Lexington County leaders and homeowners in a flooded St. Andrews neighborhood say South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. didn’t give enough warning before releasing water from Lake Murray during record rain two weeks ago.

Deputies and firefighters rescued more than 100 residents of the Pine Glen neighborhood Sunday and Monday, Oct. 4-5, after SCE&G opened floodgates on the man-made lake that hadn’t been opened for storms since 1969.

That sent significant amounts of water downstream with what officials say was minimal warning.

“We need to be able to make sure people have enough time to get out instead of being pulled out by boat,” County Council chairman Johnny Jeffcoat of Irmo said.

Pine Glen, off Bush River Road a mile north of I-20, was hit the hardest of a half dozen flooded neighborhoods that sit along area rivers in Lexington County.

County officials were unprepared for what happened in Pine Glen as the lower Saluda River rose swiftly.

“We didn’t get enough time to notify people and get them out safely,” Jeffcoat said. “They (SCE&G) could have done a better job.”

SCE&G said it followed the plan approved by federal officials that is designed to keep rising water from threatening the integrity of the earthen dam that holds back an estimated 763 billion gallons. The 85-year-old dam is backed by a second rock and concrete wall that was completed in 2005.

A cap on how high SCE&G can allow the lake to get before it might begin to threaten the dam has been in place for decades, records show. The Cayce-based utility manages the lake that’s used sporadically for hydropower but now is a major source of recreation and of drinking water.

SCE&G began its releases – without opening floodgates – on Wednesday, Oct. 1, as forecasts for the storm increased in severity.

The following day, it announced publicly that a major release of water could be coming with the storm expected as soon as that Saturday.

“Area residents and recreational lake and river users are advised to use caution as lake levels and river flows could continue to fluctuate over the next several days,” SCE&G said a news release.

To authorities, that was a signal that flooding was possible.

Even so, to Irmo Fire Chief Mike Sonefeld, the impact of such releases was unclear as he and his team pored over a variety of maps outlining possible flooding hotspots.

No one knew what to expect, he said.

Few Pine Glen residents paid attention to the first alert at the start of a rainy weekend. “No one thought it was going to get that bad,” homeowner Sam Fant said. “It was a shock. It just rose so fast.”

WHAT HAPPENED, WHEN

The floodgates at the lake dam opened at noon Sunday, Oct. 4, slightly more than two hours after SCE&G notified news outlets and posted the decision on social media at 9:44 a.m., utility spokeswoman Ginny Jones said.

The company sent a second reminder to local emergency response authorities at 11:09 a.m., SCE&G said.

SCE&G released water over the next two days, opening three of six gates fully and another partly, she said.

Sirens and strobe lights that warn of rising water in the river also were used, she said. That network is now inoperable, company officials said Friday. without saying why.

Irmo firefighters didn’t receive notice of the Sunday releases, Sonefeld said.

But firefighters knew that flash floods from creeks already had hit the nearby neighborhoods, including Coldstream, Challedon and Whitehall.

With Pine Glen sitting so close to the river, firefighters were urging homeowners to leave before forced evacuations might be necessary.

Reverse 911 calls from the county urging people to leave came too late for Pine Glen, Sonefeld said.

“It’s almost like another 9 / 11,” Sonefeld said of the initial confusion about which areas were being hit.

SCE&G released additional water just before 1 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 5, forcing virtually everyone who remained to flee their homes in the middle of the night.

Rescues, some of them by boat, started Sunday and picked up again on Monday.

No lives were lost in Pine Glen, but the neighborhood is devastated and its future uncertain. There’s damage in 114 of 134 homes, neighborhood leader Mark Fuge said.

Some Pine Glen homeowners blame no one but SCE&G.

“I know that there was no mal-intent (sic), but why weren’t we told sooner about it and how quickly it would go up? ” said homeowner Dan Gay, who left as soon as he saw the water start to rise.

Before the storm began, the 47,500-acre lake was 3.5 feet below the limit of 360 feet above sea level designed to protect the earthen dam, SCE&G’s Jones said.

SCE&G had to worry not only about the amount of rain falling, Jones said, but water from rain-swollen lakes, streams and other tributaries.

She said the outflow from the lake was around 375,000 gallons per minute at its peak.

That’s significantly more than the occasional releases from the lake each year, mostly for training water rescue crews, river races and production of electricity.

And it’s triple the amount that swamped the site on which Pine Glen sits in 1965 before the neighborhood was developed, according to a federal lawsuit over flood damage then.

CAN HOMEOWNERS REBUILD?

Standards on redevelopment of flooded areas that didn’t exist when Pine Glen was built 50 years ago now come into play, and could make renovation impossible for some families.

“I can’t go bankrupt fixing up my house to meet new standards,” homeowner Jennifer Gneiser said.

Festus Ndeilisaid he’s already is befuddled at the challenges he faces as his family lives in a shelter. “I got to start all over again,” he said. “There’s always a loophole when it comes to getting (federal) aid and insurance.”

It’s unclear how many homes will be rebuilt. People are seeking approval from county officials.

Restoration of some homes is unlikely, some county officials say.

“It’s an awkward situation,” said County Councilman Phil Yarborough, a home builder. “Many are going to find themselves put in a corner.”

At least one other neighborhood was inundated in part by lake water.

Downstream from Pine Glen, about 50 homes homes in Riverland Park in Cayce flooded more than anyone expected, a few hours after Pine Glen did.

Nearly 70 residents were rescued as the Congaree River crested past 30 feet for the first time in 79 years, the National Weather Service said.

While an estimated 400 Lexington County homeowners along the rivers struggle with repairs, county officials are looking at lessons to be learned.

SCE&G is being asked to provide much earlier warnings about releases.

“We look at them as one of our partners,” County Administrator Joe Mergo said. “It’s incumbent on us to understand what happened and what can be done differently.”

The utility already is looking at changes. “SCE&G is conducting post-storm assessment of activities related to this very rare event,” Jones said.

Improving response to major flooding along the rivers is vital, Sonefeld said.

“It seems odd there were no maps showing where flooding there is likely in these circumstances,” he said. “That seems like it should have been out there.”

Tim Flach: 803-771-8483

Flood recovery

Lexington County officials are holding an advisory session on dealing with flood damage for homeowners at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Seven Oaks Park, 200 Leisure Lane in St. Andrews.

From the lake into the river

Water released during a major storm two weeks ago from Lake Murray into the lower Saluda River occurred this way, SCE&G officials say:

Thursday, Oct. 1: SCE&G begins releases as forecasts predict heavy rain. Lake levels fell more than six inches over the next two days.

Friday, Oct. 2: SCE&G announces that it plans to release water during the storm forecast to hit Saturday.

Sunday, Oct. 4: The decision to start releases at noon is sent to news outlets and posted on social media at 9:44 a.m. Another reminder is sent to officials in Lexington and Richland counties at 11:09 a.m. The first gate opened at noon and stayed open. The second opened at 1:06 p.m. and stayed open. The third open at 6:43 p.m. and closed at 8:45 p.m.

Monday, Oct. 5: The third gate reopened at 12:57 a.m. A fourth gate partly opened at 1:42 a.m. and closed at 10:10 a.m. The first gate, which had opened on Sunday, closed at 6:08 p.m.

Tuesday, Oct. 6: The second gate, which opened on Sunday, closed at 8:14 a.m. The third gate closed for good at 11:21 a.m.

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