South Carolina floods described as “once in 1000 years” have resulted in 9 deaths and hundreds displaced, and the situation is only getting worse. A dam near Columbia, SC has been breached, and residents downstream of the Overcreek dam are being ordered to evacuate. As much as 20 inches of rain have fallen on the areas south of Columbia between Friday and Sunday.
Charleston, the third largest metropolitan area in the state with over 700,000 residents, is situated in what they call the “Lowcountry,” with marshes scattered throughout the region, making it already susceptible to dangerous flooding. Since the city’s inception, the decision to fill in some of the wetlands has been a back-and-forth effort. Now, along the Santee River, Charleston is directly downstream of the breached dam.
Columbia, the capital and largest metro area in South Carolina with over 800,000 residents, has instructed water customers to boil all water and discard any ice made with untreated water. A combination of mandatory and voluntary evacuation areas cover the Columbia area. For the most up to date information, residents should consult the state’s storm resources page.
South Carolina Emergency Management Division spokesman Thom Berry urges South Carolina residents: “If you don’t have to be out in this, don’t be.” Flood waters may contain raw sewage, infectious bacteria, poisonous snakes, and other hazards. Water that seems to be still may have strong undercurrents, and can pull even strong swimmers downstream. A widely publicized video shows a large pickup truck attempting to drive through a flooded street and being swept away in the current. The driver was rescued, but emergency workers stress the need for everyone to stay off the roads.
In 2013, the State reported that a research study into the impacts of climate change in South Carolina had been “kept secret by the S.C. Department of Natural resources for more than a year because agency officials say their ‘priorities have changed.’” The report called for coastal reinforcement, and that “A changing climate will present water-related challenges in several areas to include water quality, water quantity and changes in sea level. Rainfall and streamflow are tied directly to seasonal climatic conditions.”
It goes on to say that “A predicted result of climate change is the increase in intense storm events causing greater water inputs in shorter periods of time, affecting flood frequency and duration.” In a later passage regarding severe weather, the study states that “Depending on storm intensity and proximity to the coast, tropical systems can be disastrous.”
That same year, the American Society of Civil Engineers identified South Carolina as having 162 “high hazard dams” out of the 550 state regulated dams. According to their data, there were only “4.3 Full-Time Employees,” whose job it was to oversee the entire system. It also reveals that the state has 22 miles of levees. South Carolina has 187 miles of coastline, which inflates to 2,876 when you count islands, bays, and sounds.
Evan R. Thompson of the Charleston City Paper wrote in August, 2013, that “While technology might solve the problem, it is a problem as old as the city itself. And as the sea level rises and the number of people and cars on our downtown streets increases, it is a problem that will only become more difficult to solve with wider impacts.”
In calling for action by state lawmakers towards creating a clean energy economy, the Environmental Defense Fund reported that inaction would create risk. They state that “Sea level rise endangers South Carolina’s $149 billion worth of coastal property.”
Of course, looking at projections by ClimateCentral.org, the city would be swallowed by a few feet influx of the sea level. Crucial infrastructure projects are needed if the state hopes to protect the home and lands of its people.
Joseph Riley, long-time Mayor of Charleston spoke to Jackie Judd from PBS over the summer about what he called “incremental” updates to their infrastructure.
“There’s no cause for — to despair. It’s all — the incremental improvements will protect this beautiful, historic city,” he told Judd, while also noting that an “extensive new drainage system” was being installed.
While the drainage system was said to have been unclogged and working, according to local station WISTV10, there has still been insurmountable damage.
Crucial infrastructure updates were needed before this past week’s storm. Imagine the damage that could have been caused by a direct hit rather than just the residual effects of a storm way off the coast. Unfortunately, necessary public works projects go unfunded throughout the nation. In an economy where millions of Americans remain unemployed or underemployed, it’s hard to justify lawmakers who refuse to enact a large-scale infrastructure jobs program.
For the present, however, the focus is and must be on the immediate disaster response.
President Obama signed an Emergency Declaration on Saturday, which gives the go-ahead for FEMA to assist in protecting the lives of those caught in flooded areas. The ultimate cost of the disaster cannot be determined until the floodwaters recede and officials can inspect the roadways and other damage, but the toll could easily end up in the billions.