I often joke that if you turn on the TV and see Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel in your town that it was bad. But if you see Lester Holt, Al Roker and the NBC Nightly News team nearby, it was really bad.
Well, this week the worst case scenario occurred and to make matters worse, the location Nightly News chose as ground zero was only two and a half miles from our home. Fortunately, the house is located on one of the highest points south of the city. So despite over 20 inches of rain, “Lake Wrigley” which forms in the front yard in heavy rain reached a maximum depth of only an inch or so. I’ve seen larger ponds of water when we had periods of more inches of rain per hour than we experienced last weekend. Being near the crest of a hill allows rainwater to drain away fairly efficiently.
Last Sunday morning after rising earlier than normal due to the sound of heavy rain on the roof, we turned on the TV to see if anything really bad was happening. Sure enough, the the screen came to life on a live shot of one of the major intersections between the neighborhood and downtown, revealing the streets covered with nearly 10 feet of water. As we listened to the news reports, it became clear that the worst flooding was inside the Gills Creek Watershed and that dams upstream of the intersection were either “topping over” or failing outright. There is a difference between the two; topping over means that the water in the lake, called impoundment, behind the dam has risen to a level higher than the dam and that water is flowing over the dam downstream, failing means that the dam structure itself has become compromised and water is flowing through breaks in the dam itself.
During this week’s flood event, both were occurring upstream contributing to the flow of angry brown water roaring through the stream bed as it races south and west down towards the Congaree River which was itself at flood stage due to rains upstate. Adding to the mayhem, mid morning on Sunday, the power went out. TV and internet, except for our smart phones was gone. About an hour later, I went to wash my hands and discovered that the water was out too.
Power outages are fairly common here, but there has been only one water outage here since 1970. The most frustrating thing about the power outages is that the high voltage circuit that feeds the house is “fragile.” There is a single high voltage circuit breaker on a pole at the edge of our subdivision that blows at the slightest provocation. Sure enough, a trip to the corner confirmed that breaker was hanging loose in its bracket. To make matters worse, the houses across the street were taunting those on my side of the street with floodlights burning brightly and the sounds of normal modern life.
Immediately, I called the power company’s outage hot line, and to my dismay, instead of hearing the normal menu announcement, I was greeted by a message stating that there were so many outages in the area that they were no longer accepting calls except for where live wires are on the ground. A quick trip to their outage map on the smart phone indicated that indeed they knew the neighborhood was down.
Because this happens on a fairly routine basis, we knew what to expect during the next few days. The only new kink was in figuring out how to keep the smart phones operating. The solution was twofold; first, use the phones sparingly turning them on every couple of hours for updates and secondly using the car batteries to charge them. That meant of course, starting the cars every so often to replenish the “juice” used to charge the phones. Since we went to digital TV a few years ago we no longer could use television as an information source. Fortunately we have a pretty good battery powered radio and the one 24/7 live station had gone into wall-to-wall coverage of the situation. Kudos to the WTCB – FM staff for facing the storm and camping out in the studios to supply us with the information we all desperately wanted. Praises and a “job well done” also goes out to the television stations in the market, some of which even brought in reporters from other stations in their corporations to help provide excellent coverage. It felt a little strange to not be in the field during an emergency but at my age, I’m not sure I would have been part of the problem instead of just covering it.
Mid afternoon on Monday, we could hear a rumble of a heavy truck in the neighborhood and I went down to the pole with the blown breaker and was cheered to see not just one but two bucket trucks, a supervisor’s pickup truck and 8 – 10 guys with hard hats milling around and looking up at the breaker hanging forlornly in the slight drizzle. After a half hour of due diligence making sure that there were no down lines in the circuit anywhere, one of the linemen broke out the long pole and extended it to full length about 50 feet. As he tried to close the breaker, it fell out of the bottom side of the bracket and almost hit the lineman with the pole. My heart sank! They quickly drove one of the bucket trucks up to the pole and a lineman re-hung the breaker in the bracket, backed off and to the side where from that vantage point successfully closed the breaker. As it closed, the other linemen and me, had our fingers to our ears, we have all heard what happens when one of those babies blow; the “kapow” can be heard for miles. We were rewarded with the normal flash of an arc and silence. We had power back.
The water situation was getting serious. The day the water went out I braved the elements to find some bottled water and some ice. The next day, I drove over to an emergency water distribution site and picked up bottled water to use as drinking water. We were, and still are consuming about a case every two and a half days. I have never been to any kind of emergency site before as a consumer of services. But I had some idea from reporting from similar sites in the past. It really felt different to be there with a personal need. I am glad to report that the National Guard troops and volunteers at the site had the distribution process down to a science. Despite a line, I was in and out in less than five minutes. Fast, friendly and efficient! We have a kiddie pool in the back yard where we keep fresh water for our two dogs. During the rain, that pool filled to over flowing with rainwater and provided us with a gray water source we could use for flushing. Despite being very conservative (yellow is mellow, flush the brown down) by Tuesday morning I had transported the last drop of water in the pool to milk jugs and buckets on the floor of the bathroom. I was standing there, looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, wondering how to manage flushing when this ran out. Absentmindedly, I turned the water on to wash my hands when I heard a hiss and a gurgle and a stream of muddy brown water flowed into the basin of the lavatory. It was filthy, it smelled funny but it was beautiful. Immediately we filled the bathtub with the murky fluid and replaced the rainwater in the jugs back to the kiddie pool for the dogs.
We are still under a “boil water” advisory and expect to be for several more days. The tap water quickly cleared up to the point where we could wash clothes and after making adjustments to the dishwasher, wash dishes and even bathe in it. I was a little surprised that was possible but as long as you are healthy and have no scrapes or sores and are careful about not getting it into your mouth or otherwise ingesting it, it is safe. It seems a little strange to boil water before using it to make coffee, tea or filling the pet’s water bowl but it is manageable.
The biggest problem facing us now is just getting around town. During the height of the flood, we were surrounded by water, unable to get to the other parts of the city, including the radio station and work. All three major arteries into the city from the south and east, Forest Drive, Jackson Blvd and Devine Street were washed out. Forest drive has been partially restored with one lane in and two lanes out. But the other two remain closed due to bridge damage. The latest word is that Devine Street may be restored in a month, but the bridge where Jackson Blvd. crosses over Gills Creek has a big hole in the inbound lanes. The result of this is that four lane traffic inbound on Jackson Blvd. is exiting onto Wildcat Rd. and mixing with the three lane traffic on Garners Ferry Rd turning left into the two lanes of Rosewood Dr. This week, with no school traffic, it takes 15 minutes or longer to get through the intersection and then to travel the little over 2,000 feet to the next intersection this week. When school reopens next week, I hate to think about how long it will take. We are all going to need a lot of patience. Oh MY!
One Final Note: To everyone who has called, texted of “Facebooked” me with good wishes and support, thank you so much. We are fine, but it will take a while, perhaps years before my town returns to normal. If you want to help, there are several volunteer relief agencies that could use financial support: The Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Harvest Hope Food Bank, the United Way and many of the local churches have ways of contributing on line. Thank you!