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Gregory A. Summers
The two Lancaster Fire Department rafts parked on a trailer at the Lancaster County Emergency Management office on White Street on Monday, Sept. 17, were not there for a late afternoon fishing trip. They were there just in case.
While city firefighters used the center for a refresher course on aerial operations, LFD Chief Chuck Small was watching the weather radar.
Small was hedging the training class could get cut short. Especially after emergency personnel in the county pulled stranded motorists three separate times from rising flood waters after a slowmoving after-midnight storm dumped more than a half a foot of rain in the central and eastern portions of the county before sunrise Monday.
“At the time, I didn’t like what I was seeing,” Small said of the weather radar image. “We were watching and thought that a second band was headed in this direction. Since most of the personnel was in the class, we were going to have everything right there and ready to go if it was needed. It was coming down pretty quick.”
Just after 5 a.m. Monday, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for those areas of the county, but it was too late for three motorists who found themselves trapped almost waist deep in rising waters. In one instance, the driver was standing on top of his car.
Lancaster County Fire Marshal Stephen Blackwelder said the three separate incidents happened on Cimmeron, Hershel Plyler and Langley roads within a 35-minute time span starting about 6 a.m.
While the rafts were never used, Blackwelder said the county’s swift-water rescue team did venture into floodwaters with tag lines to get out one of the drivers.
“It was simply a matter of drivers topping hills or going around sharp curves and not having time to react to the conditions,” Blackwelder said.
Most of the rain fell along the Pageland Highway (S.C. 9) corridor. With Rocky River Road (S.C. 522) being a fall line plateau for the Gills Creek and Wildcat Creek watersheds, the rising water was sent in two different directions.
Wildcat Creek flows into Lynches River, while Gills Creek flows into the Catawba River, via the city of Lancaster, along Woodland Drive and out Meeting Street.
“We were keeping close tabs on several low-lying areas near Clinton Avenue and warned homeowners in the area of concern about what to expect,” Small said.
Blackwelder said most of the rising waters along Gills Creek and visible in Constitution Park didn’t come from rainfall in the city limits. The rain gauge emergency management office only recorded 1.43 inches of precipitation.
“We’re very lucky it didn’t rain as much in the city,” Blackwelder said. “It would’ve been a mess if it did. All of that water had to go someplace.”
Areas along Wildcat Creek from Camp Creek Road to the Chesterfield County line were especially hard hit by the massive rainfall in such a short period of time. The roads most affected were Bob Ormand Road, Carnes-Wilson Road, Cimmeron Road, Dixie School Road, Gills Creek Drive, Hershel Plyler Road, Hough Road, Langley Road, Lee Ormand Road, New Cut Church Road, Old Camden Monroe Highway, Rocky River Road (S.C. 522) near Taxahaw Road and S.C. 200 near the North Carolina state line.
“To be honest, it kind of shocked me,” Blackwelder said. “When I got the call and left home (off Possum Hollow Road in Indian Land), the pavement was almost dry.”
When Alton Mahaffey made it to a low-lying section of Cimmeron Road about 8 a.m. Monday, he found his pathway blocked as fast-moving water flowed across the pavement. Members of the state guard were posted there to turn motorists around.
“I know it’s been bad out here at times before, but I don’t ever recall seeing it rise like this, this quick,” Mahaffey said.
Angie Hunter said she left her Cherrystone Road about 6:45 a.m. Monday to take her son to Buford Child Development Center before heading to work.
“You could barely get through at the end of Cherrystone to get on Rocky River Road. A few years ago, it used to flood a lot more, but the county did some work out there to fix it. This is the first time I’ve seen it flood like this in a while. It (rainfall) had really come down,” Hunter said.
“It was so much rain so fast it just created a pond at Cherrystone,” said Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis. “I’m not sure, but I don’t think 522 (Rocky River Road) has ever been closed down before for flooding.”
Comporium Communication crews, along with Lancaster County Water and Sewer District and Lancaster County employees, as well as Lancaster County Public Works, were out monitoring the situation, for good reason.
The section of Gills Creek Road that was recently repaired by the county was severely damaged by flood waters once again.
In 2010, county public works dug up the road and replaced the aging drainage pipes underneath to help curb future flooding, but that did little good Monday.
During heavy rains, the road regularly floods and drainage problems were addressed about a year ago. “It’s washed out again,” Blackwelder said just before noon on Monday.
Willis said the county applied for a Federal Emergency Management Act (FEMA) grant to build a $1.5 million bridge, but the grant was denied.
Willis said in a previous interview since there are only 30 homes on Gills Creek Drive, “the numbers just don’t crunch” for FEMA to step in.
Although Willis is on vacation this week, he is aware that Gills Creek Drive is, once again, unsafe. He said at lunchtime Monday the county’s engineering firm and Army Corps of Engineers had been contacted about Gills Creek Drive.
An emergency access point on the road has been reopened. In February 2010, Lancaster County Council approved an expedited condemnation of property near the dead end of the Gills Creek Drive to create an alternate emergency access road into the neighborhood. Council’s move, Willis said, didn’t “set well with the feds (federal government).”
“If I had the money to build it (the bridge), I would,” Willis said. “Last time this happened, we caught a fit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for moving so fast, but that’s what you have to do when the main issue is public safety. This time, it could take a lot longer.”
While the flash flood warning was lifted at 10:45 a.m. Monday, more rain was expected in the forecast through Tuesday. By early Monday afternoon, Blackwelder said most of the water had subsided, except on Hough Road.
When it comes to Gills Creek Drive, Willis said the clean-up and repair process is at a standstill until later in the week.
“There’s no use trying to do anything until the weather clears up and we know what it’s going to do,” Willis said. “I know it is supposed to rain at times today (Tuesday). Hopefully it’ll be average and not another belly washer.”
Willis said Carnes Wilson and Logging roads are also areas of concern. Both, he said, were damaged by flooding along Wildcat Creek.
One lane of Logging Road was undermined and is no longer safe. Willis said the water flow on Carnes Wilson Road was so heavy that it washed out the drain pipe/culvert from beneath the pavement.
“It clear cut everything,” Willis said. “Until we get permission from the Army Corps (of Engineers) to get in there, nothing is going to happen.”
Contact Gregory A. Summers at (803) 283-1156