COLUMBIA — A summer of rain has left its mark on South Carolina, undermining dozens of roads, flooding neighborhoods from the mountains to the coast, and ruining the South Carolina Botanical Gardens.
It may not be over. With soil moisture at near-record levels, emergency officials worry that if a decaying tropical storm moves over the state in the next month and brings more torrential rains, the results could be disastrous.
“The ground cannot take much more rain. But there’s really not much we can do except wait and hope for some dry days,” said Pickens County Emergency Management Deputy Director Denise Kwiatek.
Parts of Pickens County have received more than 60 inches of rain so far in 2013, which is more than the average rainfall for a year in the area. Nearly half of the state’s 46 counties, spread all across South Carolina, have seen at least 40 inches of rain during this period, according to a review of data collected by volunteers for the National Weather Service’s Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network program.
The torrential rains in Pickens County caused $200,000 worth of damage earlier this month at the South Carolina Botanical Gardens at Clemson University, garden Director Patrick McMillan said.
About 8 inches of rain fell in about four hours overnight on July 14. Trails were destroyed and plants were swept away by the runoff. The Natural Heritage Garden, with its more than 1,000 varieties of native plants in their natural habitats, is gone. The exhibit had only been open a few months, McMillan said.
The garden is seeking donations to help pay for the damage, which wasn’t covered by the university’s insurance. McMillan said botanical gardens from across the country have volunteered to send replacement plants.
There was a blessing in the damage, McMillan said. The garden will rebuild with protections against a similar future flood and will educate visitors on how people may need to adapt to extreme weather.
“We’ve had a 100-year drought, 100-year heat wave and 100-year flood all in the past four years. As climate become more volatile, we’re going to try to illustrate the idea that we need to adapt,” McMillan said.
Outside of the botanical gardens and a few other pockets of the state, the heavy rains haven’t caused major damage. Part of that is because the precipitation has pulled the state out of a long drought. There may be no better spot to illustrate the turnaround than Lake Hartwell in the northwest part of the state.
In August 2008, the lake was at 637.6 feet. Earlier this month, the lake crested a full 27 feet higher at 665 feet, less than 6 inches from the record level set almost 50 years ago.
All that water has to go somewhere, and it is causing a slow moving flood downstream. In Jasper County, the Savannah River is cresting at its highest point in 20 years, chasing people from their homes.
Boats have also become a familiar sight in neighborhoods in Horry County, where the Waccamaw River went over its banks, or in Bamberg, Dorchester and Colleton counties, where the Edisto River is reaching levels not seen in 40 years.
The rains have washed out several roads and caused sinkholes to form on others. The Department of Transportation said about 16 roads across the state remained closed this weekend, including U.S. 178 in Pickens County near the North Carolina state line, where crews expect to spend a month cleaning up a mudslide. Dirt roads in rural areas of the state also remain a mess because they will have to dry out before crews can get equipment out to smooth them over.
Road crews have worked plenty of overtime in the past two weeks hustling out barricades to block flooded roads or doing inspections on bridges after heavy rains, said Brandon Wilson, assistant maintenance engineer for the DOT in four Upstate counties.
“We keep doing the same thing over again, just in a different place each time we get another storm,” Wilson said.
The forecast for the next week or two is similar to conditions all this summer – fast-growing storms with quick bursts of heavy rain, said Mark Malsick, severe weather liaison for the State Climate Office.
“Not everyone is getting it on the same day, but overall, for these two months, everybody has gotten above average rainfall,” Malsick said.
That has left soil moisture at near-record levels for this time of year. That means it takes a lot less rain to cause a flood, which could be dangerous as the calendar turns toward August. South Carolina can get dying tropical storms and hurricanes that can bring a foot or more than rain in only a few days.
Lakes, rivers and the ground can’t take that type of rain, and catastrophes from inland flooding have happened in the Carolinas before. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd dumped 20 inches of rain on eastern North Carolina, where the ground was already saturated from the rain brought by Hurricane Dennis days earlier. It led to 52 deaths in that state and some $6 billion in damage there.
But it is way too early to know if anything like that might happen this year.
If it does happen, South Carolina’s amazing yearly rainfall record of 120.21 inches at Hogback Mountain in Greenville County might be broken. That record was set in 1979 when weakening hurricanes David and Frederick moved over the Upstate, Malsick said.
“The wild card is always tropical season,” Malsick said. “We can get one of these things to move through and blow all types of records away.”