One Year Later: Reflections on Columbia’s Flood

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I remember waking up on the day of the flood a year ago. That Sunday, my mother called. “Have you seen the news?” she asked.

We had been making a big family breakfast with bacon and pancakes. My husband had discovered some wet spots on the carpet in our finished, ground-level basement that morning. We thought our elderly dog was responsible. Some old towels were left to soak up the moisture and we went about our routine.

We turned on the television. It was the hurricane.

Hurricane Joaquin had been traveling toward our coast after doing some major damage in the Bahamas and several other areas near it. Joaquin’s approach was directing some aggressive storm waters toward us. What started pleasantly in South Carolina, with cooling temperatures and misty rains, developed, over the course of several days, into relentless rainfall with no end in sight.

Our governor had declared a state of emergency several days prior to the disaster but many of us had not taken it very seriously. The hashtag #drizzlegeddon started trending on social media.

After days of waiting for calamity that we suspected would not really come, the damage came, and it came so rapidly. The water supply to our neighborhood was turned off not long after we tuned on the TV that Sunday. Reports started coming in from friends by text, IM, and phone calls. Houses were flooding. Businesses were flooding.

We confronted the rising water in our home, perplexed, not at all prepared for this thing that was being reported as a historic 1,000 year flooding event. We were called to action when our friend, Evelyn, arrived.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

She explained that there were fallen trees everywhere and they were cutting off access to and from our neighborhood. Power lines were being pulled down, tangled in the trees that were falling from the saturated earth. She was only able to find one route in to check on her friends in our area.

The three of us began to remove everything from the bottom-floor; photos, framed diplomas from the wall, our computer. “You are not overreacting,” Evelyn said.

We reassured the kids that mommy and papa had this under control.

My panic intensified when we realized that the moisture downstairs was coming up from the ground, not down from the sky.

When Evelyn left, we walked outside with hoodies thrown over our pajamas, sandals and other haphazard attire. The neighbors were all walking the streets in shock, assessing the area, displaced.

We met people on foot who we had never seen in our neighborhood before. A man in a windbreaker was smoking a cigarette. We started talking about what he had witnessed so far; a live electrical wire fallen across South Beltline Boulevard, kayaks rescuing people from their homes, really serious helicopters.

My street ends at Tall Pines Circle, a few yards away from a section of the Gills Creek watershed, what we affectionately call “the swamp.” The water in the watershed is not ordinarily visible from the street. Instead, a jungle of trees grows thickly up the steep banks, frequently overtaken by kudzu. The ground is carpeted with bushes and tangled growth. It isn’t particularly hospitable to foot traffic or for peering into.

From my driveway, I could clearly see a river of muddy, clay-stained water moving swiftly through the waterway, swelling nearly to the road. The road was eroding, chunks of asphalt crumbling into the water behind a few orange cones put there as a warning. Two young men stood at the edge taking pictures with their phones.

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A woody cracking sound came from above and then we all watched one of the tallest nearby old-growth trees bow into the swamp, the clutch of its roots freed from the soaked swampbank.

On our street, my house was hit the hardest and we only took on about six inches of water on our lowest floor. Tall Pines was half underwater. The stop sign at the end furthest from our intersection was nearly hidden beneath flood water. By the second day, cars were floating on Rosewood Drive, a quarter of a mile from the road I lived on.

Dams breached. I recall waking up from a vivid, terrifying dream on the second night. In it, my home was sliding into Gills Creek with my family inside. I woke up feeling like it could really happen.

We weren’t officially evacuated but, even still, we left with our dogs on the third day. I took my camera, all my photo albums, my hard drives, and a random collection of clothes. It’s sort of pathetic, the things you reach for when you no longer know what matters beyond your family’s safety.

Leaving, I finally felt the shock of what I’d been through when I realized that things were entirely different right up the road. There they weren’t using buckets of rain to flush their toilets.

In the nearby city of Lexington I had a bubble bath, my first bath in days, the best bath of my life, even though the water ran cold halfway through. “Yes, Belinda, heaven is a place on Earth,” I posted to Instagram. Our friends made us dinner on the grill. Shrimp, chicken wings, s’mores.

The grocery store in Lexington had plenty of water and La Croix.

“I should buy a bunch to bring back to the city,” I told my husband.

The stores in Columbia were cleaned out. I had already gone to two churches and Whole Foods to get free water and hand sanitizer. I couldn’t even handle the shelves full of bread and milk in this land-of-plenty.

We humbly suffer a sort of survivor’s guilt knowing how fortunate we were. We watched our friends sustain incredible damage and loss to their homes and possessions.

At ground zero, I fixated on trying to peel an autographed “Labyrinth” poster that was stuck to the glass of its frame by flood water. It was signed by David Bowie and Jim Henson. My friend literally spent days pumping water from her home. Nearly everything she possessed was in ruins. I wasn’t much help. And, I didn’t even save the poster.

It seems too soon to be talking about this now. Many of my neighbors are still unable to return to their homes. Many of them lost everything. So many of them are anxious as Hurricane Matthew approaches our coast today, on the anniversary of last year’s catastrophic event.

It aches to revisit these feelings, in expected and unexpected ways. When I see my social media posts from those events last year, I see messages of support, virtual hugs, offers for places to find shelter, advice for ways to clear the water from my home. I see the same thing today.

Storms will always come. When disaster strikes, a community can emerge stronger. We did. I look back with gratitude. I look back knowing that the safety of my friends and family is enough. I’m grateful for that.

Originally published by Unsweetened on  

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