Originally created 08/14/04

Flood, tornado watches posted as storms move into state



CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Steady rains and strong thunderstorms lashed South Carolina Thursday, pushed northward by Tropical Storm Bonnie after the storm sloshed onto the Florida Panhandle.

The storms sparked lightning, pelted hail, caused scattered power outages and prompted numerous reports of tornadoes and some street flooding across the state. There were no immediate reports of serious damage.

Bonnie was but the first of two tropical systems South Carolinians would have to deal with as Hurricane Charley took aim at Florida and was forecast to follow Bonnie north through the state on Saturday. Gov. Mark Sanford on Thursday said residents in low-lying southeastern counties should begin making preparations for a possible evacuation on Friday before Charley strikes.

"I'm particularly worried that this storm's most powerful area could affect our Southeastern coast right at high tide Saturday morning, creating a potentially life-threatening storm surge and the potential for serious flooding," Sanford said.

At the peak of the storm Thursday, about 1,000 South Carolina Electric and Gas customers in the Midlands were left without power. That was down to about 20 by Thursday evening, and crews were working to restore power to those customers before the end of the night, spokeswoman Mary Green Brown said.

Authorities reported a tornado splintered trees in Fairfield County while high water washed over a road and bridge in Greenville County. The National Weather Service said more than a foot of water was standing at an intersection on U.S. Highway 501 - one of the main roads to South Carolina's Grand Strand.

Sporadic tornado warnings were issued, one resulting from a tornado that several people reported above a lake near Conway. A total of four tornadoes were confirmed in Horry County, said Joe Farmer, a spokesman for the state Emergency Management Division.

The National Weather Service reported minor damage to homes after a tornado hit just outside the city of Longtown. Kershaw County emergency officials also reported mobile homes overturned in Cassatt from the storm.

The weather service said the two tropical storm systems, although expected to move relatively quickly, could bring an additional 3 to 5 inches of rain to the state.

By midmorning Thursday, heavy rains were falling in Greenville County, which two weeks ago weathered a storm that dropped as much as 5 inches of rain, causing flash floods damaging homes and cutting power to thousands. That storm caused almost $6 million in damage.

"One of the concerns we have is the western part of the county is already saturated," said Scott Wendelken, director of the county Office of Emergency Management. That could mean more flooding or brisk winds could topple trees in saturated areas and snap power lines.

Greenville County was contacting swift water rescue crews to make sure they were in position early in areas where officials think flooding could be a problem, he said. "If the ground is already saturated, there will be some flooding. There may be some limbs down and power outages here and there," Farmer said.

In Charleston, officials kept a close eye on the storms and fire department workers spent Wednesday filling sand bags, which are available for residents to protect homes and businesses.

The bad weather comes at a critical time for the $632 million cable-stayed Ravenel Bridge, the most expensive bridge project in state history, now under construction across the Cooper River. The roadbed is being extended across the river, and workers recently installed additional support cables to protect the bridge in the event of such a storm.

Without them, even minimal hurricane winds could twist the cables and damage the diamond-shaped towers of the span between Charleston and Mount Pleasant.

Crews made preparations for Charley on Thursday, said Bobby Clair, the Department of Transportation engineer overseeing the bridge construction.

"We're moving all nonessential equipment to higher ground, tying down new materials and securing any pieces of the bridge that have been installed such as steel girders not completely bolted in place," he said. Clair said workers installed temporary moorings upstream for the barges used to carry supplies to the bridge.

"Basically we're preparing for high winds and possible hurricane force winds," he said. "One thing you can predict about hurricanes is they are unpredictable."

The weather service said Bonnie could bring scattered thunderstorms, some of them severe with wind gusts of up to 60 mph. Forecasters also warned of the possibility of hail and tornadoes. The American Red Cross on Thursday opened a shelter at White Knoll High School in Lexington in anticipation of the heavy winds, power outages and flooding caused by Bonnie.

Forecasters warned Charley could begin affecting the coast late Friday, bringing tropical storm-strength winds of 39 mph to 74 mph and heavy rains.

Isolated tornadoes also were possible along the coast, which is expected to be on Charley's east side - the part of the storm with the strongest winds.

The Citadel in Charleston delayed by one day the scheduled Saturday arrival time of new students because of the possibility of flooding.