Dangerous East Coast storm brings misery to South Carolina

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Sunday, October 4, 2015
Waves crash over an experimental sea wall to protect homes during high tide on the Isle of Palms on Oct. 3, 2015.

COLUMBIA, SC -- A dangerous rainstorm drenching the East Coast brought more misery Sunday to South Carolina - cutting power to thousands, forcing hundreds of water rescues and closing "too many roads to name" because of floodwaters.

Early Sunday, emergency management officials sent a statewide alert telling people to stay off roads and remain indoors unless their homes were in danger of flooding. Interstates were closed by flooding in several spots - including a 75-mile stretch of I-95 in the eastern part of the state - and nearly 30,000 customers were without power.

The region around the state capital of Columbia was being hit particularly hard, with the city's police department tweeting: "Too many roads to name that are flooded. Please heed our warning! DO NOT venture out!"

The county government said 100 people had been rescued from vehicles after trying to cross flooded roads, while state officials reported a total of 200 swift-water rescues around the state. Columbia police said another 200 rescue calls were pending as of midmorning.

Local news showed dramatic images of flooding around the city, including rescuers wading into waist-deep water to help drivers trapped at a busy intersection. Elsewhere, emergency personnel on boats were shown taking people from a Columbia apartment complex where water covered the roofs of vehicles in the parking lot. Downtown, Gills Creek was 10 feet above flood stage, causing heavy flooding that nearly reached the stoplights at a four-lane intersection.

Emergency shelters were being opened around the state for displaced residents.

The Columbia area received the most rain in the state overnight, with up to 14 inches reported in some places since Saturday, forecasters said. To the southeast, meanwhile, rainfall had exceeded two feet since Friday in some areas around Charleston, though conditions had improved enough that residents and business owners were allowed back into the waterlogged downtown on a limited basis.

The South Carolina Highway Patrol responded to more than 300 collisions around the state in the 12 hours leading up to 6 a.m. It cleared nearly 140 trees from roads.

President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in South Carolina and ordered federal aid to bolster state and local efforts.

At least five weather-related deaths have been reported since rains began spreading over the Eastern Seaboard, which appeared to dodge the full fury of Hurricane Joaquin that's veering out to sea.

The steady downpour around the Southeast has drawn tropical moisture from offshore that's linked up with an area of low pressure and a slow-moving front. Heavy rain was expected to continue in the Carolinas and parts of northern Georgia, the National Weather Service said.

The low-pressure system also was expected to whip up stiff northeasterly winds in the Blue Ridge mountains of the Carolinas and western Virginia with gusts up to 35 mph through Sunday, the weather service said. Increased winds held the prospect of toppling trees in waterlogged soil.

High winds toppled a tree that hit a vehicle and killed a passenger Thursday near Fayetteville, North Carolina. Three people died in separate weather-related traffic accidents in South Carolina on Friday and Saturday, the Highway Patrol said. A drowning in Spartanburg, South Carolina, also was linked to the storm.

Along South Carolina's coast, officials in Georgetown were not letting people into the city Sunday because of flooding of several feet on some roads in the waterfront historic district.

To the south, Charleston County 911 operators received 300 calls for assistance in a two-hour period Saturday night. Two mobile home parks in North Charleston were evacuated because rising floodwaters forced crews to cut off the electricity.

The downtown Charleston peninsula, which includes the city's historic district, has been reopened on a limited basis for residents and business owners after it was closed to incoming traffic Saturday.

"The peak is past, that's for sure, but there will still be periods of heavy rain that will continue into tonight," National Weather Service meteorologist Peter Mohlin said of the Charleston area.

In the Greenville area 100 miles northwest of Columbia, some were venturing out for necessities despite the warnings.

Michael Robertson, 54, was grabbing a pack of cigarettes at a gas station on Sunday after staying home all of the previous day.

"I had to leave the house," he said. "When I got up, I didn't know what to expect. I saw flooding all over the state, but after driving around a little bit, I think we dodged a bullet here."