CHARLESTON, South Carolina — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is urging residents on Sunday to plan on staying home at least through Monday due to flooding, and announced that because of the dangerous weather conditions, all interstate highways in and around the capital city of Columbia would be closed.
As teams from multiple agencies try to save people from their cars on flooded streets across South Carolina, officials are struggling just to keep count, the state’s emergency management spokesman told CNN on Sunday.
“It’s a historic flood the likes of which we haven’t seen,” Eric Rousey said. Most of the rescue operations are being staged in Dorchester and Charleston, where at least 30,000 people are without power. Emergency officials said there were about 140 water rescues in Dorchester overnight.
In Charleston, people paddled kayaks and canoes down city thoroughfares, as more than 6 inches of rain fell in downtown on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service Twitter account.
On Saturday, about 11½ inches of rain had fallen in the city, the weather service said. That’s an inch more than the all-time daily highest amount of rain in the area, recorded in September 1998.
Of the 83 road closures throughout the state early Sunday, 46 were in Charleston, Rousey said.
President Barack Obama has declared an emergency in South Carolina, authorizing federal aid in anticipation of more rain.
The weather service forecast “catastrophic flash flooding” overnight into Monday in Berkeley County in South Carolina, where more than 18 inches of rain had fallen in 24 hours, according to the CNN Weather Center.
The situation is so extreme that the helpers are in need of help as well.
“Four additional swift-water rescue teams are coming in from out of state to assist with SC rescues,” the South Carolina Emergency Management Division tweeted.
For motorists tempted to drive during the deluge, Charleston County’s government tweeted the urgent message, “Please stay HOME.”
Georgetown County opened three emergency shelters for residents who have had to leave their homes, according to a release from the county. Roads were closed throughout Myrtle Beach on Sunday as the city of Georgetown was “predominantly under water,” city Fire Chief Joey Tanner said. Firefighters are responding to calls, while residents are escaping their homes by boat.
Several fires have been reported, the release said, because water has seeped into electrical circuits. Officials are warning that if water is coming into a home, breakers must be cut immediately.
‘Turn around, don’t drown’
Motorists are often the casualties in strong storms, and 8 to 10 inches of rain were predicted to fall over most of the state’s coast late Sunday through Monday.
Three people died Friday and Saturday in traffic incidents in South Carolina, and a car passenger died in North Carolina on Thursday when a tree fell on Interstate 95, officials said. The deaths were blamed on the weather.
The weather service opened the extreme weather forecast on its website with a public service announcement video reminding people not to drive through rushing waters, no matter how shallow. “Do not attempt to drive into flooded roadways. Turn around, don’t drown,” it said.
“It takes just 12 inches of flowing water to carry off a small car; 18 to 24 inches for larger vehicles,” the video said.
Inundated homes, streets
In Dorchester County, South Carolina, where a flash flood emergency was already in effect, the county didn’t have sandbags for residents trying to shore up their doorways from rising waters.
“If water is entering your house and you feel unsafe, please evacuate to the county shelter,” emergency management tweeted. “Call 911 if you need help doing so.”
The water was still feet away from Joe Shetrom’s door overnight, but even that came as a surprise to him.
“When we built our house almost 3 years ago, I questioned if we really were in a flood zone. Now I know,” he tweeted along with a photo of the water creeping up his front yard.
Lauren Tuorto closed her Holy City Consignment shop on the Charleston peninsula until Tuesday.
“It is impossible to navigate the peninsula right now without a kayak or a monster truck,” she said.
“Having weathered plenty of hurricanes in the Out Islands of the Bahamas where my family lives and living in Charleston for 10 years, I have never seen rainfall like this,” she said.
The second punch
The wet misery extends from Georgia to Delaware, and the weather service has issued flood watches up the coast. And it comes from two sources.
The low pressure area associated with the rain soaking the Carolinas is funneling heavy tropical moisture into the region, creating the torrential rainfall, the CNN Weather Center said.
Joaquin weakened to Category 3 strength early Sunday and was predicted to weaken further over the following 48 hours. It is inching north in the Atlantic, but luckily away from U.S. shores. Joaquin is expected to push in a storm surge in the Northeast as it passes.
The two separate storms will result in a one-two water punch. And they are triggering more dangers than just rain.
“Life-threatening rip currents, high surf and coastal flooding, mainly at high tides, will stretch nearly the entire eastern U.S. coast,” CNN meteorologist Michael Guy said. Wind gusts could reach 30 mph and could topple trees.
As South Carolina residents hunkered down, up to 500 residents were evacuated in coastal Brunswick County, North Carolina, that state’s governor said.
A foot of rain could fall in the southern Appalachians. The Northeast could see 2 inches of rain. And up to 4 inches could strike the waterfront between Georgia and New Jersey.
Flooding is a major concern for a number of reasons: directly from all the rain, indirectly from rivers and creeks possibly overflowing their banks, and also from storm surges fanned by strong winds.
Along with the Carolinas, New Jersey, and Virginia have declared states of emergency.