COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — In a flood, nature can steal everything: lives and homes, delicate Christmas ornaments, a favorite flannel shirt, a special fishing hole.
The historic rains and floods that battered South Carolina in October claimed 19 lives, destroyed more than $1 billion dollars in homes and property, and left thousands struggling to recoup.
Many in the region are still trying to regain their balance. Here are a few of their stories.
Bruce Guignard's ancestors have been in South Carolina since the 1730s. Five feet of water swept through his Lake Katherine home last October, but that won't push him anywhere else. The neighborhood was his stomping grounds as a child, he says, and he wants to pass that link along to his grandchildren.
He's lifting his house up one story to meet flood standards. He says that has a bright side: a concrete floor underneath where the children can roller skate.
For his family, once-lost treasures do turn up: His wife Claudia's plastic tub of cherished Christmas ornaments was found intact, buried in a mound of silt after it floated over a dam about a mile away.
From the floods came lasting images of damage. In some areas hit hard, major roads have reopened, schoolchildren are back in class and clean water is restored to residents. But pockets of destruction remain along the Gills Creek waterway. Columbia city Councilman Moe Baddourah calls it "ground zero" for the floods. Baddourah once ran a restaurant in the area and said he's worried about property values plummeting and entire sectors losing residents. "This city saw lots of love during the recovery," he said. "But we still have a rough road ahead."
A raccoon found here, a mass of copper wire checked there. Columbia police Patrolman Michael Thompson keeps his eyes open for wildlife as well as thieves as he patrols homes stripped to wooden skeletons after the floods.
Volunteering to work on his days off, Thompson says repeat visits help him recognize returning residents as well as contractors licensed for home repairs. His says the patrols deter those who might do even more damage to homes through thefts or vandalism.
Rachel Larratt's small bungalow was knocked off its foundation from the force of floodwaters and 2 feet of rain that cascaded through her neighborhood above Gills Creek in southwest Columbia. Nearly everything she had was ruined.
Instead of moping, Larratt got active: She founded a nonprofit foundation to help people manage the process of seeking assistance to relocate, and selling or repairing damaged homes. She set up a warehouse distribution site, where flood victims get household and personal items free of charge, and organized volunteers to help clear the flood-damaged creek.
"Warning: Four large water moccasins inside!" the door reads on a home near Gills Creek. It is one of the estimated 1,600 homes in the central Richland County area hit by the floods. Many residents are waiting to see whether they can get federal assistance to lift their homes or demolish them, or perhaps start over somewhere else. If demolished, the home site must be turned into green space — not built on again.
More than 102,000 South Carolina residents registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of the floods. Every day, Delwander Brewer tries to make life easier for a few of them.
Brewer works in the Columbia warehouse stocked with donated supplies — clothing, cleaning items, mattresses, toothbrushes. Brewer says people still come in daily. "I didn't realize so many people still needed help," she said. "On the first day I began working here, I just cried. It helps you realize just how blessed you are."
Over the days of rain, residential ponds and lakes that dot suburban neighborhoods around Columbia "filled up like a cup," says Erich Miarka, the director of the Gills Creek Watershed Association. The watershed drains about 47,000 acres in the heart of the state. About three dozen dams in the state gave way, crumbling roads built atop them and devastating neighborhoods downstream. At the height of the disaster, 541 roads were closed. State transportation officials say 48 roads are still closed, uncertain of repairs to the many dams they once traversed.
Miarka, who has helped organize volunteers cleaning the battered Gills Creek watershed, surveys what remains of an earthen dam that once held back Cary Lake in the community of Arcadia Lakes. Homeowners are trying to figure out how to repair the dam so the Department of Transportation can fix the road. Miarka says the cost of fixing the dam alone might carry a $1 million price tag, and homeowners are hoping for state or federal assistance with the bill. Repairs to dams and roads in the region may take years.
For Roosevelt Durham, floodwaters have calmed enough to let him get back to a favorite fishing spot along Gills Creek. "It gives me peace of mind," he said.
The water had risen well above the roadway behind him, collapsing buildings and flooding nearby homes and businesses. On a recent sunny afternoon, Durham had already caught about seven bream. He fishes for them daily and cooks them up in a pan with onions and bell peppers — "I can eat it every day," he said.