Joaquin Flooding Hits South Carolina’s Newer Housing Developments and Midlands Hardest

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The corner of Morris and Felix streets in Charleston, during the rainfall from Joaquin. Joseph Snyder

On Tuesday morning in Charleston, South Carolina, the rain finally stopped, and business began to return to usual after intense showers from Hurricane Joaquin brought record flooding levels across the state, in what was dubbed a “thousand-year” event by Governor Nikki Haley.

“It looked like Venice,” Joseph Snyder, a junior at the College of Charleston, tell Newsweek. “There were the houses, you know—but instead of roads, it was like there were canals.”

Snyder said he was walking to class along sidewalks covered in washed up debris, and  that in some places it smelled where the sewers had backed up. It was an overcast day, and the sun hadn’t come out since the rain started. Thankfully, most of the standing water was gone from the streets downtown.

Rainfall from the hurricane started in South Carolina on Thursday afternoon, and continued through Monday.

“It was incredible. The non-stop rain,” Winslow Hastie, chief preservation officer for the Historic Charleston Foundation, tells Newsweek.

Surprisingly, wind damage was minimal during the storm. The flooding was due in part to both the extremely high tides and the non-stop rain.

“We were already getting flooding last week, with no rain,” said Hastie. “That was just from the tides—what they call king tides. It has to do with the location of the moon in relation to the earth. The tides were just crazy. Then the rain, and those two things combined created the perfect storm for serious flooding.”

“The systems were just maxed out,” he added. “There was nowhere for the water to go. And it just did not stop.”

For a time, nothing felt too unusual in this city, which typically sees some flooding. Before the rain started last week, Charleston’s East Bay Street was flooded from water seeping under the historic Battery.

“You always hear about how Charleston floods,” Snyder said. “You get a little bit of rain, and then the city floods.”

So it felt normal—just rainy—in the city at first. “A lot of people were outside, even,” said Snyder. “They had blown up inner tubes, blown up rafts. That was before the sewers backed up.”

The rain didn’t stop. And suddenly, it seemed, “There were a lot of road closures,” said Snyder. “The police were closing off roads and imposing curfews. It felt like they were putting us under some sort of martial law. It was a really weird feeling. Us on this peninsula, just riding it out.”

For as much damage as the city took, though, it wasn’t historic Charleston that suffered the most damage. Many of the older buildings in the city were unscathed, as they stand on the highest ground.

“The architecture [of Charleston] responds to its environment,” Hastie said. “Because flooding isn’t a new thing to the city, many of the old buildings are without any apparent catastrophic damage.”

Yet some of the newer housing developments in the region aren’t on such high ground. Many of the latest developments in the suburbs are often built up on “made land”—old creek beds and marshes filled in. These homes experienced the worst flooding.

“There’s a community called Shadow Moss in West Ashley,” said Kristopher King, executive director at the Preservation Society of Charleston. “It’s been so over-developed, the marsh is filled in. So there was just nowhere for the water to go. These houses which didn’t flood in Hugo were flooding like we’ve never seen.”

King said that it wasn’t Charleston that experienced the worst flooding. The rain was unrelenting across all of South Carolina.

“It wasn’t just Goose Creek, Charleston, bits of Summerville,” said Snyder. “It was the whole state.”

On I-26 on Sunday afternoon, cars skidded along the highway in closely packed lines of traffic as the torrential rain continued. Visibility was difficult, and windows fogged. The midlands received some of the worst rainfall from Joaquin.

“It was the magnitude of the rain,” said King. “The duration.”

In Columbia, large sections of I-26 were completely closed off on Sunday afternoon. The Bush River Road exit leading into the city had a police cruiser parked across it, tilting sideways across a pool of water that covered the exit ramp.

“What happened in the midlands was absolutely frightening,” Hastie said. “I don’t know if many people are fully aware of that. That was catastrophic, with the dam breaches. I know there’s some real concerns about the effects there.”

North of Columbia, in Lexington county, even the smallest of creeks were rising, spilling muddy-red water over their banks where they crossed under the highway.

This week, residents across the state are looking forward to getting back to their regular lives—though things don’t look quite the same yet.

“Today, school is back up in action,” Snyder said. “There’s still a lot of leaking. A lot of puddles. Even the upper stories of some buildings have a lot of water in them, where the roof wasn’t good. Just because of the unforgiving amount of rain.”

Hastie, like most, has hopes the sun will show up soon—at least by the weekend. “We just need some sun,” he said. “I think everybody’s kind of just ready for the water to recede.”