In Year Since Floods, South Carolina Struggles To Prepare For Future Disasters

Oct 3, 2016
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If you drive through certain parts of South Carolina, you can still see evidence of last October's historic flooding. Much of the state was under water. Nineteen people were killed. There are still some homes that haven't been repaired but also roads and dams, too.

We're going to revisit what happened and learn why the recovery is taking so long, why more hasn't happened in the last year. South Carolina Public Radio's Alexandra Olgin has our report.

ALEXANDRA OLGIN, BYLINE: An unrelenting torrent of rain pummeled South Carolina for five days last October. The storm system was like a fire hose that stalled over the state for days. That coupled with high tides submerged much of the coastline and swelled rivers, causing dams to fall like dominoes. CNN was broadcasting updates on the situation.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In the last 24 hours, there have been over 30 breaches of dams and levees. It's spilling into...

OLGIN: In the end, more than 50 dams failed, many of them earthen. That forced evacuations and 500 road and bridge closures, including major interstates. Homes were swamped with as much as 9 feet of water. Since then, some residents filed lawsuits against owners of the dams. A year later, many roads are back open, except for the ones built over the top of those broken dams.

Here on Church Camp Road in rural Calhoun County in the center of South Carolina, a large chunk of one of the two lanes still looks like it just collapsed. Fragments of black asphalt sit inside a 6-foot-deep hole. This road has been closed since last October. State Representative Russell Ott says that's too long.

RUSSELL OTT: In a year's time, a decision can be made. It's a tough decision to have to make, and I don't envy that decision. But at the same time, it's still one that has to ultimately be made.

OLGIN: This dam under a state road is owned by private citizens, as many of the state's nearly 2,500 regulated dams are. The transportation department can't repair the road unless the dam beneath is rebuilt, and it's up to the owners to decide whether to fix it or abandon it. Ott has been getting calls from frustrated constituents.

JERRY WILES: I'm working on a job that's probably three quarters of a mile past the dam break on that road, and I got to drive out of the way every day.

CHRISTINE BICKLEY: When we want to go check on the cows, we have to go around to get to them.

OLGIN: That's Jerry Wiles and Christine Bickley. They're just two of thousands of people who rely on the 20-plus roads still closed. Right now there is no deadline for repairs to be completed, and state regulators haven't started imposing penalties partly because rebuilding is so expensive.

MICHAEL MOSS: I can't imagine being able to do it for less than a hundred thousand dollars.

OLGIN: Out of his own pocket, and that's money dam owner and accountant Michael Moss doesn't want to spend. His dam sits on a private dirt path. It didn't breach but eroded a bit. Water still flows out of the working spillway.

Since the breaches, regulators have beefed up inspections. Moss has been told to remove all the trees that sit on his earthen dam.

MOSS: I mean I could do it, but I don't want to do it, and I'm not going to do it. I'll drain the pond before I do that.

OLGIN: Some other states help owners defray the cost. Mark Ogden is with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

MARK OGDEN: About half of the states report having some sort of an assistance program, either a loan or a grant. In states that have a good program, you know, we do see that owners take advantage of those programs and make repairs.

OLGIN: Lawmakers are still trying to revamp South Carolina's dam safety laws. Since the disaster, regulators got money to double the number of inspectors to 14. Before that, the state had one of the worst-funded programs in the country. In the meantime, drivers will have to keep finding alternate routes until dams are fixed. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Olgin in Calhoun County, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.