Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Running Water

by Paula Gail Benson

The flood that we have just experienced in Columbia has made me reflect a lot about running water. It’s something that we expect as a part of indoor plumbing. From consumption to bathing to cleaning dishes and clothes, having running water is the crucial element to ensuring ease and convenience of modern living. It’s not something we’d consider as dangerous. But, it became so during what has been called a “thousand-year event.”

We were warned by reporters and government officials to expect excessive rainfall that could lead to flash floods. The Friday before the deluge, I was in Publix with many other folks picking up non-perishables to see me through whatever came. On Saturday, the weather was mild during the day, but in the evening, the rain began and remained constant.

I woke on Sunday and looked out at my yard. Everything appeared normal. Then, I turned on the television. Within blocks of my home, on streets I traveled daily, the water gushed like rapids gone wild. Each picture was more horrifying as I saw places submerged where I shopped and my friends and colleagues lived.

Our local news channels provided twenty-four hour coverage, advising people not to venture out except for emergencies. They had cameras on the scene to chronicle roads and bridges on main thoroughfares collapse or wash away. One reporter told us that she had been urged not to get too emotional, but that she couldn’t help it. Especially, when the rains finally subsided and people came out to see the damage, she was appalled that they walked right up to where the infrastructure was crumbling, possibly endangering themselves and first responders.

There were so many heroic rescue stories. An elderly gentleman trapped in a car told his would be rescuer that he wasn’t afraid to die. The rescuer replied, “Well, I am,” before proceeding to get them both to safety. With two neighbors, a good friend of mine set out in a canoe to help a family who had scrambled to their attic to escape rising waters. The father knocked out a rafter to call for help after 911 was not able to respond, due to so many requests for assistance. On a news story about the incident, the father said how helpless he felt in not being able to save his family. Thankfully, my friend and his neighbors got them out of the house.

Even in the aftermath, there are so many stories of people reaching out to help those in need. A member of my writing group filled the back seat of her car with personal hygiene items, then put a message out on Facebook asking where to take them and how to get there (with the road closings). A law school classmate posted on Facebook pictures of photos and other mementos that had washed into his yard, asking if anyone could identify them so he could return them to the owners.

I stayed in my house until I heard travel was encouraged. Even then, navigating the barricades and figuring out the best route was a challenge. Offices, stores, and restaurants were closed. The water supply was contaminated. The only place to get a hot meal was the Waffle House. They were serving as fast as they could and piling up the dishes, since washing them wasn’t possible. I hesitated, but finally ordered coffee, and was grateful that they gave me three refills. It tasted so good.

As I left for Bouchercon, the news indicated another dam might fail and my area could be evacuated. I decided to head for Raleigh. At least, I had a hotel room there.

I was tremendously fortunate. My home never lost power or water. When I returned from Bouchercon, I had to observe a water boil alert for another half week. At all the restaurants, people were drinking bottled water and eating off plastic. I never realized how much I could miss ice cubes or milk shakes.

Gradually, things are returning to normal. There are still detours around closed streets, churches with prominently displayed “disaster relief” signs, and plenty of houses being gutted and restored.

Carla Damron’s husband found her beloved kayak in a neighbor's yard. Sam Morton helped with the clean up at a school his children had attended. On the first day the sun came out, a local meteorologist, Tim Miller, choked up when he saw it as he gave his forecast.

I’ve come to have a new respect for running water. Not just as something I depend upon, but also as a potentially deadly killer. I understand at least fourteen fatalities were victims of the flood.

A waitress told me during the crisis her son and daughter-in-law, who are firefighters, were working and not allowed to receive calls. She heard on the news that a firefighter was missing and spent a dreadful few hours fearing for them until her son was able to communicate with her and assure her they were fine. The missing firefighter was found alive, after following his training and clinging to a tree for hours as the water rushed below him.

Thanks to everyone, my blogging partners and many others, who have expressed concern and support.

Have you ever faced a natural disaster? What advice do you have for those of us now recovering and rebuilding from the flood?

Carla Damron's "Poke Boat" Kayak


Jim Jackson said...

Two things struck me about the South Carolina catastrophe. The first is that we seem to be having a lot of 100-year, 500-year and 1,000-year weather events recently. Perhaps it is only big-event-memory bias: we remember those things far from our experience because they are big events and overemphasize them in our memories. Thus I remember the 1 in a thousand event and ignore the 999 in 1,000 events. But perhaps these events are harbingers of the kinds of weather trauma that are predicted side-effects of globally warmer oceans.

The second thing that strikes me is that much (not all) of the damage was caused by infrastructure failure. In New Orleans and Katrina, the levees were insufficient for the task and caused the major flooding, not the hurricane itself. In Columbia, that much rain would certainly have caused flooding, but it was the dams breaking that caused the major damage. In the penny wise/pound foolish approach to governmental expenditures, we quickly approve money for disaster relief, but are unwilling to approve money for disaster prevention.

In times such as these, we see on display the best and worst of human nature. I'll choose to remember your stories of the best. Glad you and my other SC friends all made it through okay.

~ Jim

Grace Topping said...

Thanks, Paula, for a moving account of your experiences and those of your neighbors. It goes to show you that water can be our best friend or our worst enemy.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Hurricanes (east coast), tornadoes (Midwest), forest fires (Los Angeles), ice storms (Atlanta), and picking up the pieces for Tulane students after Katrina...but never the devastation South Carolina experienced. Stay well and dry.

carla said...

Well said, Carla. I think that from now on, those of us who live in SC will divide time this way: what happened before the flood, and what happened after.
We're gonna be dealing with the "after" for a long, long time.

Sarah Henning said...

I'm so glad all of you are OK! What a powerful column, Paula. I hope that the rebuilding effort goes smoothly. I grew up in Kansas but never really had to deal with tornadoes too much, however, when I moved to South Florida, I saw several hurricanes, including Frances, Wilma and Jeanne. We lost power every time and the clean up was never fun, specifically for Wilma, which hit when we owned a house. There were houses down the street with gaping holes in their roofs that made them look like dollhouses. But we were very lucky to have an old 1926 Key West-style wood home that had seen that sort of storm many times before and was very good at the expansion and contraction necessary to avoid took much damage.

Kait said...

Oh, Paula, so heartbreaking. I followed the floods on the Internet news knowing how awful it is to be a flood victim. Took me a longtime before heavy rain didn't frighten me enough to make me want to stay home. I still see the water swirling around my apartment and feel the pain of slashing my hand when I broke the window in my front door to gain entry. My dogs were inside, I had to get them out. They were the only valuable I thought to save. There they were, my German Shepherd swimming in the water with the terrier in his mouth. Excluding loss of life --in many ways flood losses are worse than fire, hurricane, or other natural disaster. Flood losses have the unique ability to give you hope. You are certain you can salvage many items, especially keepsakes, then you discover the water wins after all. So sad. Glad all are well in your family, and proud of the WWK bloggers for helping out.

Susan Craft said...

Such a good, emotive description of the flood, Paula. We didn't suffer damage - only had to boil water for a week - but it was horrible watching the event play out on the TV and seeing our neighbors' and friends' homes and cars being swept away. I've heard rescue stories that make me flinch. The road beside our church has a 20 foot wide gap in it, and according to a work priority list I saw yesterday, the road won't be repaired until after Thanksgiving. Good, clean, fresh water - YAY - we take a lot for granted.

Warren Bull said...

Thanks for reminding us about what really is important.

Kara Cerise said...

Water is powerful! I remember flash floods in the Arizona desert. One time I opened the car door and saw water pour down a hill. All of a sudden it was inside the car. The water flowed so quickly that I barely had time to react. It was frightening and humbling. My thoughts are with everyone affected by this (hopefully) 1000-year event.

Gloria Alden said...

What a touching account of what you and others went through, Paula. It's nice to see that in times of crisis, how many people are willing to help anyway they can.

Although, there was once a horrible tornado that went through my county, it never came close to me. I know some people who live close to the Mahoning River and several nearby creeks have flooding at times, but I'm not near running water of any kind. Once I couldn't deliver mobile meals to a couple on my route because the whole area was flooded. I found out later they'd heard the warnings and had gone to a motel before the river left its banks. I remember trying numerous ways to get to them on different side streets and all were blocked off.

Shari Randall said...

Paula, my heart goes out to all those affected by the flood. As Carla said, you all are going to be dealing with the effects of the flood for a long time.
I remember many blizzards growing up in CT - especially the Blizzard of 78 when we lost power for days. Since I was a teenager, I found it rather fun to be "camping" in our house, sleeping by the fireplace, but I am sure my parents weren't so enthralled.
More recently we had the hurricane in northern VA -can't remember the name, but power and water were out for three or four days. Living without water for more than a day or so moves from being a hassle to a major concern pretty quickly. That was just a minor taste of what SC is dealing with.
Glad you soldiered on and came up to Bouchercon!

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thanks, Jim. You're absolutely correct. Infrastructure is invisible, until it's not there. Then, you realize its value. I hope preventative measures can be encouraged.

Grace, that is so true. I remember E.B. Davis' post on riptides. Water can be incredibly damaging when you don't realize the extent of what is coming.

Margaret, thank you. I watch the news now with new empathy for those in harm's way from natural disasters.

Carla, I still find it hard to believe I can't travel Rockbridge Road, which I've done for almost my whole life. It's astonishing. Glad your damage was contained.

Me, too, Sarah! We're all doing a lot of hand holding and supporting for those who lost everything.

Kait, you are exactly right! The situation haunts you. You think back what you were able to do a week before and it all seems surreal.

Susan, I am so glad you and Ricky are okay. Yes. Clean water is a wonderful thing!

Warren, thank you.

Kara, how terrifying. I've heard of the power of desert flash floods. After watching our streets fill with water and wash cars away, I think I understand better now.

Gloria, the blocked streets are both frustrating and frightening. At a certain point, you wonder if there is a way around or a way back. All the people who came to B'con from south of Florence had to take about a 200 mile detour because a part of I-95 was closed. It's so hard to imagine an interstate being closed to traffic!

Shari, being with you, Gloria, Kathleen, and Jan helped me to relax and remember the joy of friendship. Thank you all for the wonderful times we had in Raleigh. It was a relief and delight!