By Rich McKay
COLUMBIA, S.C. (Reuters) - Exhaustion was etched into Mike Ronan's face, which he has not shaved since Sunday when record rainfall in South Carolina breached a dam near his apartment and he, his wife and their pets were told to evacuate.
In the days since sheriff's deputies pounded on their door, Ronan, his wife Jill and their dog and two cats have bunked with about 200 other evacuees on military cots crammed into a middle school auditorium in Columbia.
The couple said they considered themselves lucky to have survived the historic flooding that has claimed at least 17 lives. But they do not know when, if ever, they will be able to return to their apartment, which was soaked in waste-deep water when they left.
"There's an inch of mud in our home," said Ronan, 48, adding that the place smelled like sewage when emergency management workers brought him back this week to survey the damage.
St. Andrews Middle School auditorium was one of 23 shelters open across the state on Thursday after a widespread storm dumped more than 2 feet (60 cm) of rain in some places and forced hundreds of people from their homes.
The stage that normally is a platform for student band concerts and plays now holds a mountain of donated clothes, diapers and banana crates filled with food and bottled water. Shelter residents eat sausage biscuits and casseroles donated by restaurants.
On Wednesday, they mostly relied on portable toilets because the school's water supply kept getting cut off.
Tiffany Harding, 28, also arrived at St. Andrews on Sunday with her husband and their 4-month-old son Jermare after water rushed into their Columbia home, toppling the refrigerator and filling their bathtub with foul brown water.
She looked on the verge of tears as she described losing all their possessions, including her car and the baby's clothes, crib and toys, which Harding said they cannot afford to replace.
"We don't have the money," she said.
At a nearby table, retired Army sergeant John Rivers, 67, said he had managed to save some personal papers and photographs before being evacuated.
He said he struggles to sleep at the shelter, where the lights are kept on, and he turns away when the television channel is switched from cartoons to newscasts filled with grim news about the devastation caused by the rain and floods.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency worker told Rivers that the cleanup at his home could take up to two months. "But," Rivers said, "don't worry about nothing. I got God. He'll provide."
(Reporting by Rich McKay; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Toni Reinhold)