Spirits remain strong

AIKEN --- Gerald Heath was actually quite cheerful Monday.

He still didn't have power. His roof had a large hole in it. Trees lay uprooted in his backyard. He could find only three of the five shutters blown off by the wind. And he had just run out of hot water.

But the 67-year-old Aiken County man was chipper late Monday afternoon as he lamented not only damage to his house from Saturday's storms but also the trashing of his neat lawn.

"I'd just raked," Mr. Heath said, gesturing around his O'Bannion Court yard.

But then he turned and looked at the work crews down the street, at the men clearing fallen trees and the women at the Salvation Army truck handing out food to powerless residents.

Even as Mr. Heath and his neighbors cleared downed trees and waited for insurance adjustors to show up -- O'Bannion Court was one of the hardest-hit streets in Aiken County -- they joked and laughed.

"I'll sell you a slightly used house," Mr. Heath told one, who said to another, "I told him he could have all the pine trees he wanted."

That spirit prevailed in the wake of the tornado that touched down in Midland Valley on Saturday, battering the area and leaving thousands without power and many with damaged homes.

On some streets trees were piled up, waiting to be carried away. On others the damage was barely noticeable.

That's because the community pitched in on Sunday and Monday, said County Councilwoman Lawana McKenzie.

Ms. McKenzie said she has been moved by the help needy residents have received since the storm hit, with churches and volunteers jumping in to clear debris, feed those without power and help those forced from their homes.

The help might be needed for a few more days. Although Aiken Electric said that all of its customers had power, about 400 customers of South Carolina Electric and Gas were still in the dark Monday night.

The American Red Cross opened a shelter at Midland Valley High School for those who could not return home, and the Salvation Army was providing food and shower facilities for those in the O'Bannion Court area.

Clearing all the debris could take even longer. Sheriff Michael Hunt said at a Monday afternoon news conference that residents should pile it on the right-of-way in front of their homes and the Department of Transportation will take it away.

"Be patient now," Sheriff Hunt said. "This may take two to three weeks."

Bath water customers will have to boil their water until told otherwise. Sheriff Hunt said Monday that service had been restored but the system did not have full water pressure. State health officials continued to test the water, he said.

The full cost of the storm was not known Monday, but Lt. Michael Frank said the sheriff's office alone had racked up $15,000 in overtime pay for deputies. That could go up, he said.

With hundreds of homes still without power, Sheriff Hunt said those areas would receive extra patrols.

Sheriff Hunt also tried Monday to dispel some rumors:

- There has not been widespread looting, he said. In fact, there hasn't been any looting.

- No one died in the storms. Two people did have minor injuries, but nothing more.

- His office has received reports of price-gouging for tree removal and repairs, but those reports had not been confirmed.

He said his office would take any confirmed price-gouging seriously, even if it means arrests.

"We tolerate fair market prices," Sheriff Hunt said. "If it was fair on Friday, it should be fair Saturday through today. We will not tolerate price-gouging of our citizens."

Pupils, however, won't have to wait any longer to get back to normal. All Area 3 schools will reopen today.

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or sandi.martin@augustachronicle.com.

STORM COVERAGE

SCHOOLS: All Area 3 schools reopen today. Pupils should report at the usual time.

DEBRIS: The South Carolina Department of Transportation will pick up the debris. Officials say residents should put the debris on rights-of-way in front of their homes and call the DOT to get work orders at (803) 641-7666 or (803) 641-7665.

WATER: Residents of Bath should boil their water until further notice.

HOME REPAIRS: Before making repairs to your home, you must obtain a permit from the Aiken County Planning and Development Department. Call (803) 642-1518. The permits will be free.

POWER: Only about 400 South Carolina Electric & Gas customers were still without power Monday afternoon.