Lessons from the South Carolina Flood

How to prepare for a flood and what to do (and not do) when the waters rise

Diana Hembree Holiday October 6, 2015

In October 2015, South Carolina was hit by flash floods linked in part to moisture from Hurricane Joaquin being sucked in to a low-pressure area. Homes were flooded, streets and sidewalks washed away and cars and Red Cross vans half-submerged in the floodwaters. "We are at a 1,000-year level of rain," Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina said at a news conference. "That's how big this is."

1. Even a foot of moving water on the roadway can float your car away

The dangerous floods were a reminder that no matter how shallow the floodwaters look, it’s crucial to stay off any streets covered by rushing water. According to CNN, the weather service repeatedly warned residents to stay inside: "Do not attempt to drive into flooded roadways ... it takes just 12 inches of flowing water to carry off a small car. Turn around, don't drown.” Some residents rowed down flooded streets in boats instead.

2. Flooded? There's an app for that

house submerged south carolna house submerged south carolna Photo: Sean Rayford /Getty Images

On October 5, 2015, a church in Columbia, South Carolina was surrounded by flood waters.

President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration for South Carolina, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate relief efforts. The Red Cross was also active in the region. Besides its work on the ground, the Red Cross offers emergency apps, including a flood app and a Safe and Well website to help disaster victims locate missing family members. People without Internet service can call 1-800-RED CROSS and select the prompt for "Disaster" to register themselves and their family to help find out if their loved ones are all right.

3. Prepare for an emergency in advance so you won't need to drive

It’s safer to keep off the roads entirely during severe flooding unless you’re ordered to evacuate. (That's one reason it's good to have your home emergency kit ready, which should include several days' worth of food and water as well as extra batteries, first aid supplies, a battery-powered radio, extra eyeglasses, spare keys for your home, local maps and a list of emergency contacts.) Gov. Haley urged state residents to stay off the roadways, but some ventured out anyway. On October 4, 315 vehicles crashed into each other and 750 drivers called for assistance during one 12-hour stretch, according to CNN.

4. Ditch the selfie stick

man flood phone man flood phone Photo: Sean Rayford /Getty Images

Columbia resident Matt Talley contacts a neighbor before taking a canoe to investigate his home.

Like fires and hurricanes, floods aren’t made for selfies. Haley discouraged lookey-loos, reminding everyone that “this is no time to be outside taking pictures.” Besides being dangerous, taking selfies during a disaster is widely viewed as disrespectful to people who have lost their homes and sometimes loved ones. (In fact, NBC News weatherman Al Roker drew furious criticism on Twitter after he and two colleagues posed, grinning ear to ear, for a selfie in front of a collapsed highway and a woman stranded in a car that had fallen during the collapse; he has since apologized for being "insensitive.") Meanwhile, a state of emergency was declared for both Carolinas, New Jersey and Virginia, according to CNN, and the weather service issued flood watches from Georgia to Delaware.

5. Be ready to evacuate

emergency team flood emergency team flood Photo: Sean Rayford /Getty Images

Emergency teams search for stranded people in the Forest Acres neighborhood of Columbia.

By October 5, the heavy rainfall and flooding had left 11 people dead in South Carolina, according to the state’s Department of Public Safety. Seven of them drowned, and four died in traffic accidents. Nine dams overflowed, causing new flooding near Columbia. National Guard crews joined state troopers and other state workers in hundreds of water and door-to-door rescues. FEMA and other agencies note it's important to have your passport, will, and crucial financial and health documents in one spot so you can find them quickly if you're evacuated.

6. Boil drinking water

crumbling building south carolina crumbling building south carolina Photo: Sean Rayford /Getty Images

A Liberty Income Tax store shows damage from the flood waters.

As in all floods, the dangers didn’t disappear as soon as the flood waters receded. As the waters subsided in some areas, state agencies urged people to boil drinking water to get rid of contaminants. "Rising water from flooding can carry viruses, bacteria, chemicals and other submerged objects picked up as it moves through stormwater systems, across industrial sites, yards, roads and parking lots,” the South Carolina Emergency Response Team noted in its advisory. If you follow the safety instructions for boiling water, though, you should be fine.

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