Cindi Ross Scoppe

If the rains came again today, how would Columbia cope?

What was once Rockford Lake, formed by damming Gills Creek at Overcreek Road, is now a meandering creek winding its way through a dry lakebed. The dam over Upper Rockford Lake was destroyed during the October 2015 floods.
What was once Rockford Lake, formed by damming Gills Creek at Overcreek Road, is now a meandering creek winding its way through a dry lakebed. The dam over Upper Rockford Lake was destroyed during the October 2015 floods. tglantz@thestate.com

IF THE RAINS came again today, they would not destroy nearly as many homes and businesses, would not force nearly so many evacuations and disruptions.

But much of Columbia could be without drinkable water for as long as we were a year ago.

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What Columbia can learn from Nashville’s 2010 flood

Scoppe: Let facts, not preconceived notions, dictate flood recovery decisions

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The good news comes largely from inertia: The walls of water that swept through our community have already done their worst to the homes and businesses in their path; today the buildings sit empty, or have been bulldozed over, or rebuilt to higher and safer standards. And the dams that breached and sent those walls of water over our homes and businesses a year ago have not been repaired; the lakes they held back have reverted to meandering streams.

The bad news also comes from inertia: Although Columbia officials finally patched the 60-foot gash in the Columbia Canal dike that is crucial to distributing safe water to 188,000 customers, the patch is hardly ready for another onslaught of floodwaters. And while the waterlines that sprang leaks under the weight of the flooding have been repaired, the city has not updated the sprawling system of aging waterlines. That means Columbia’s water system is no more ready today than it was a year ago to distribute safe water to a flooded community.

Meantime, Columbia officials haven’t decided how to serve more customers from the treatment plant at Lake Murray if the downtown plant becomes inoperable. Nor have they decided whether to repair the Columbia Canal to its pre-flood condition or to higher standards; only within the past month did they hire a company to assess how to move forward. It will be years before permanent repairs are made, whatever standard is selected.

Clearly this will be expensive, and more expensive if the canal is rebuilt to higher standards. But the fact that city officials are even considering any other option highlights how little attention they paid to the advice Nashville officials offered a year ago from their own flood-recovery experience: Rebuild for bigger storms.

Our state government can claim some credit for the empty lake beds. After the breaches, officials with the dam safety program told owners they had to actually obey the law now, that the state won’t look the other way any more. And the Legislature provided money to hire enough staffers to put some muscle behind that threat. But a new law, to make dam owners take responsibility before the rains come? None to date.

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Why we need a new dam law (it’s not the reason you think)

Now that we realize the risks of earthendams, what will we do about it?

State’s penny-pinching ways crippled dam safety program

1,000 other unsafe dams in SC?

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City and county officials can claim some credit too, for what they did years before the floods: They adopted federal flood maps that limit how and where people build and rebuild in flood-prone land. But new regulations to provide an extra layer of safety — to require higher standards than the federal minimum or make more flood-prone land off-limits to building? None to date.

In fact, the Columbia City Council voted to allow some people to rebuild without meeting the standards already on the books.

That could be interpreted, generously, as following one piece of advice officials in Nashville gave us last year: Move quickly to help people get their lives back on track. Also in the category of helping people rebuild: Columbia and Lexington and Richland County temporarily suspended building permit fees and business license fees to ease flood repairs.

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Cost to repair Columbia Canal: $100 million

Columbia property owners to get breaks to fix flood-damaged homes, businesses

Lexington County will extend area for buyouts of flood-prone homes

Some Lexington County homeowners eager to explore flood buyouts

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But while Columbia and Richland and Lexington counties are following the Nashville advice to buy out some of the most flood-prone properties and turn them into green space, they haven’t followed the act-quickly rule there: A year on, homeowners who want to sell remain in limbo, still waiting to hear whether their property will be purchased, still paying a mortgage on homes that are uninhabitable or barely habitable, as local governments work through federal rules for funding assistance.

Behind the dam failures and the canal breach, the biggest man-made failure came when SCE&G opened the floodgates at Lake Murray and sent its own walls of water into already-swollen creeks and rivers. How much SCE&G is to blame for devastated neighborhoods is up for debate — and litigation — but it’s clear that people were stranded in their flooded homes because they didn’t know the massive water release was coming.

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Residents: Not enough warning of Lake Murray release

911 phone alert system not used to warn people of early floodwaters

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Lexington County officials have asked SCE&G to provide earlier and more muscular warnings if they open the floodgates again, but the company has been noncommittal — and almost certainly will remain so until the lawsuits are settled. Federal regulations would have to be changed to allow the company to release water more slowly once the lake level rises too high.

If the rains came again today, local officials would know much better what to expect, and how to respond. They’d use their reverse 911 systems more, they’d coordinate better, their messaging would be clearer. They would do a better job getting shelters up and running and equipment into place.

But with each passing year, the hard-won knowledge diminishes. And better implementation can’t prevent problems like better laws can. That’s why it’s so important — even now — to pass laws and adopt policies and procedures that we have learned we need, to prepare for more floods, or other disasters. We can’t avoid natural disasters; but if we act wisely, we can avoid exacerbating them with man-made disasters.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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