Gerry Broome / AP Photo

'Fire hose' of rain in Carolinas leaves at least 12 dead

Thousands without running water, infrastructure a mess as 'Hugo-level' storm swamps North, South Carolina

After a week of steady rain, thousands of South Carolina residents faced the prospect of going days without running water, and with waterlogged dams overflowing, bridges collapsing, hundreds of roads inundated and floodwaters rolling down to the coast, the southern state on Monday was anything but done with the disaster.

"This is a Hugo-level event," said Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, head of the South Carolina National Guard, referring to the September 1989 hurricane that devastated Charleston. "We didn't see this level of erosion in Hugo. ... This water doesn't fool around."

The rains hit during a time of unusually high tides, and with soil already saturated by heavy rain in late September, according to the Charleston Post and Courier. This meant the rain couldn't soak into the the ground or flow into rivers and the ocean. Safe water, however, was in short supply: In Columbia, firefighters used a half-dozen trucks and pumps to ferry hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital.

Much-feared Hurricane Joaquin missed the East Coast, but fueled what experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called a "fire hose" of tropical moisture that aimed directly at the state. A solid week of rainfall killed at least 10 people, sent about 1,000 to shelters and left about 40,000 without drinkable water. Two more people people died in North Carolina.

On Monday evening, President Barack Obama declared 11 South Carolina counties disaster areas.

One of latest to die was McArthur Woods, 56, who drove around a barricade and drowned Sunday night. His passenger managed to climb on top of the sedan, which stalled in the rushing water. A firefighter rescued her after someone heard her screams.

"She came out the window. How she got on top of the car and stayed there like she did with that water — there's a good Lord," Kershaw County Coroner David West said.

We haven’t seen this level of rain in the Lowcountry in a 1,000 years. ... That’s what South Carolina is dealing with.

Nikki Haley

Governor, South Carolina

By Monday, the heaviest rains had moved into the mid-Atlantic states. Along the Jersey Shore, some beaches devastated by Superstorm Sandy three years ago lost most of their sand to the wind, rain and high surf.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley warned citizens to remain careful as a "wave" of water swelled downstream and dams had to be opened to prevent catastrophic failures above low-lying neighborhoods near the capital.

“We haven’t seen this level of rain in the Lowcountry in a 1,000 years,” she said to the Post and Courier. “That’s how big this is. That’s what South Carolina is dealing with.”

"Just because the rain stops, does not mean that we are out of the woods," Haley said. 

Indeed, shortly after the governor's news conference, authorities evacuated an area on the northeast side of Columbia after a dam on Rockyford Lake burst around 2 p.m. Monday.

James Shirer lives in the area and said he saw the dam fail and a 22-acre lake drain in 10 to 15 minutes.

The 16.6 inches of rain that fell at Gills Creek near downtown Columbia on Sunday made for one of the rainiest days recorded at a U.S. weather station in more than 16 years.

The entire eastern side of the capital city awash in floodwater. Neither trailer parks nor upscale neighborhoods were spared: A yellowish broth filled one mansion's swimming pool.

Some 550 roads and bridges remained closed on Monday, including nearly 75 mile of Interstate 95, the main link from the Southeast U.S. to the Northwest. The governor said they will need close inspection to ensure they're safe.

Some towns were entirely cut off. About 60 miles southeast of the capital, all four roads leading into the county seat of Manning were closed, isolating 4,000 people. Many smaller communities in Clarendon County are in a similar predicament, Sheriff Randy Garrett said.

"I'm the sheriff of a bunch of islands," Garrett said.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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