Sunday, October 4, 2015

South Carolina Flooding Even More Incredible Than Anybody Imagined

Building collapsing amid the floods in Columbia,
South Carolina. From WITK-TV. 
The South Carolina flood disaster that began really unfolding yesterday went from dangerous to catastrophic overight. This is one extreme weather event, and it's extremely dangerous.

At least four people have died in this disaster, and I expect the death toll to rise, unfortunately.

Since yesterday a fire hose like stream of heavy rain slammed into South Carolina from the Atlantic Ocean. It was bad enough all day Saturday, but last night this "fire hose" intensified, and as of 8:30 this Sunday morning was going full steam.

Rainfall has been incredible. Even more incredible than the 20 inches a lot of us expected ahead of this storm.

Standed motorist in South Carolina. From
television station WITK  
When I give these storm totals remember that it was still raining hard at the time of these measurements.

A place called Boone Hill Plantation northeast of Charleston, South Carolina had received a storm total of 24.23 inches of rain. (I've seen whole years where I live in Vermont with that much rain.)

Another town called Shadowmoss, South Carolina has reported 22.47 inches of rain.

Charleston itself had 14.45 inches at last report early this morning and nearby Mount Pleasant was up to 15.6 inches. And again the rain was still pouring down when these reports came in.

The National Weather Service in Charleston, South Carolina has had widespread reports of 9 to 14 inches of rain and another 6 to 12 inches is expected today. Forecasters there said some areas would get storm totals in excess of 25 inches.

This exceeds the benchmark for extreme rain in the Carolinas, which was set in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd deposited up to 24 inches of rain on North Carolina.

As you can imagine, South Carolina is in chaos today. In a rare move for any state in any situation, the South Carolina Department of Emergency Managment is telling all South Carolinians to stay at home and not go anywhere. That is unless they have to evacuate to get out of flood waters.

Emergency managers in the state are also telling South Carolinians to not call 911 unless it's a life-threatening emergency.

The Columbia, South Carolina Fire Department was urgently calling for helicopters because they could not reach people stranded in flooded homes and cars.

Frustratingly, a lot of water rescues in South Carolina have involved people who tried to drive across flooded roads. One report last night had 300 water rescues in Charleston County in a couple hours, and most of those were from flooded cars on roads.

Parts of major highways like Interstate 95, Interstate 77 and Interstate 20 in South Carolina are closed. Traffic cams show cars submerged in water in these highways.

Authorites try to rescue stranded motorists near
Columbia, South Carolina. From WITK television.  
I get it that maybe a few of these  motorists were surprised by rapidly rising water on roads that seconds before  hadn't been submerged.

But so many took their chances in trying to drive across flooded roads, which means resources have to be brought in to get them out of trouble.

In a disaster like this, motorists who drive into flooded roads are like the rest of the storm debris: They're in the way and have to be moved.

The closure of Interstate 95 has implications all up and down the East Coast, not only in South Carolina.

That's because Interstate 95 is the major throroughfare for truck traffic and any other kind of traffic up and down the East Coast.

Near Columbia, South Carolina today.Via Twitter
 from @TimMillerSC
It's interesting and horrifying to watch this disaster unfold on Twitter.  People don't know what to do in such an extreme disaster. I remember this feeling when Tropical Storm Irene trashed my home state of Vermont with catastrophic flooding in 2011.

For a taste, on my Twitter feed I saw this:

SCEMD (which is South Carolina Emergency Management:) "Stay. Where. You. Are. Dangerous flooding condiions through the state most of the day."

RK: "Wish you could get this to some employers in Charleston."

Harding Brumby: "Stuck on I-95 near Alcolu. Staying put, but what is the plan for the many motorists who can't get off the road?"

Water rescue in Columbia South Carolina.
Then there was this other exchange of Twitter:

News 19 WLTK "Water rescues happening now at Decker Blvd. Camera crew is there live on air."

Kerry Stubbs: "@WLTK Please tell rescuers in the area there's a white Toyota Tacoma washed off Shorebrook near the dam. He is up against a pine tree."

Kerry Stubbs "@WLTK: My husband Ty Bohela has no lights or horn on stranded Toyota Tacoma. Can someone find him with GPS from his cell, 803-360-5588?"

As I said this downpour in South Carolina is going to continue all day. A stalled storm system along the Southeast coast is bringing in a band of horrific rains that has held basically in place since Saturday, targeting South Carolina.

This "Atmospheric River" of extreme moisture also tapped into strong Hurricane Joaquin yesterday, making the rain even more intense.
Flooded home near Columbia, South Carolina today
Photo from Lisa Dye. 

Atmospheric Rivers are not a newly christened name for a weather phenomenon. Meteorologists have studied them for decades.

They're usually creatures of the West Coast, when a relatively narrow band of air that taps into tropical moisture, and strong upper level winds aim the very wet air at a specific region, dumping feet of rain. In California, this is often referred to as the Pineapple Express.

As we know, atmospheric rivers don't have to come into the West Coast. An extreme 2010 flood around Nashville, Tennessee was largely borne from an atmospheric river. And this South Carolina flood is too.

The ever-reliable meteorologist Marshall Shepherd has a great article about this phenomenon in Forbes right now if you want more information. It's worth the read.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Joaquin, unexpectedly strengthened to top winds of 150 mph on Saturday, almost a Category 5 hurricane.

It is now slowly weakening as it accelerates toward the northeast. It is threatening Bermuda with a nasty blow.

Back to the floods. Here's a water rescue in Columbia, South Carolina original from

 Here's a video of Charleston, South Carolina by Brendan Sullivan, and this was taken before the flooding really intensified. Scary:

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