The “1,000-year flood” that slammed South Carolina last October created no small amount of tragedy for residents who lost homes, possessions or lives to the rising waters.
But it also created potential for a selfless response from the people who dedicate their lives to helping others.
This month, the S.C. Emergency Managers Association recognized at its annual conference a half-dozen local emergency officials who worked through October’s floods and the aftermath for “Outstanding Contributions to the Profession.” Three of the people recognized came from York and Chester counties: York Emergency Director Chuck Haynes, Deputy Director Mike Channell and Chester Assistant Emergency Director Ed Darby.
The region’s high representation partly stems from the fact York and Chester counties were largely untouched by the flood, freeing up all three to deploy elsewhere in the state.
“Whenever there’s a statewide event and your county’s not impacted and you know you’re no longer threatened, you have to offer help to your neighbors,” Haynes said.
Both counties survived the storm surge of Oct. 3-4 largely unscathed, at least when compared to Midlands and Lowcountry regions that saw some of the worst flooding in living memory.
As emergency responders from across the state and beyond mobilized to help the worst affected areas, the S.C. Emergency Management Division called Haynes and Channell to Clarendon County, one of the worst hit in the state, while Darby was dispatched to Richland County, where the state capital faced the possibility of multiple dam failures.
“We worked through the night, relaying information on their condition,” Darby said. “It was pretty hazardous.”
Clarendon, in the low-lying middle portion of the state, had to contend with flooding that essentially split the county into three “islands,” Channell said. At the same time, Clarendon’s emergency manager had been out of town during the storm and was unable to get back. York County’s team had to trace a circular route to the county seat of Manning.
“We had to go down I-26 to Santee, then back up (I-)95, because there were a lot of bridges out around Columbia,” Haynes said. “There were still rescues going on all around there.”
Once in Manning, they shared office space with National Guard units, an urban search and rescue team, even emergency responders from Virginia. Channell took over the county’s operations planning while Haynes handled the logistics of getting services to the people who needed them – including going door-to-door to ensure residents were OK.
The two got motel rooms to shower and catch a few hours of sleep between shifts, but during their stay between Sunday, Oct. 4, and Thursday, Oct. 8, they didn’t spend much time in their rooms.
“We got there Sunday around lunchtime, and our first shift lasted 36 hours,” Channell said, “We had to play a lot of catch-up.
“With the bridges out, we had to set up public safety entities on each ‘island,’” Channell said. “We were able to get the level of service back up to where it had been as soon as possible.”
‘I didn’t know what I was getting into’
That Monday, Oct. 5, Darby arrived in Columbia to help monitor the area’s overtaxed dam system. He brought his own supplies in his work truck, including a change of clothes and bedding for the cot he would spend the next few nights on at the Palmetto Armory.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Darby said.
As part of his duties during the flood, Darby had to reach some remote dams through “hazardous” conditions, dodging sinkholes that opened during the storm and navigating a string of police roadblocks.
“You had to feel your way around, and law enforcement would direct you,” Darby said. “Something that was three miles away, you might have to travel six or seven to get to the location.”
Darby’s boss, Chester Emergency Management Director Charlie Murphy, said this was Chester’s chance to “return the favor” after multi-county responses to incidents there.
“He was in the heat of the fire,” Murphy said. “He was standing right by one (dam) in Forest Acres when it started coming off in chunks.”
“There were a surprising number of dams there,” Darby said, “and some areas were on the verge of breaking. DHEC and SCEMD were trying to reinforce them with dump truck loads of ‘rip-rap’... basically large rocks.”
Later in the week, Darby helped manage resource requests for first responders around Columbia, along with emergency personnel from all different places and different levels of government.
“I was taken aback by the amount of people from around the state who get sent in when something like this happens,” he said. “I was surprised by how smooth everything happened.”
Meanwhile, after the York duo finished up almost four days getting Clarendon County back to normal and were headed back to York County, Haynes – who jokes he “drew the short straw” – was told to turn around and head to a ravaged coastal community in Georgetown County. He set up a command center in the Big Dam community near Andrews, where the one bridge connecting the community to the outside world had washed out.
“They were cut off by the Black River, on an island of about 300 people,” Haynes said. “We developed contingency plans for what to do if the water started to rise unexpectedly.”
Serving the small community proved easier when local emergency responders had the foresight to move a fire engine into a flood-prone area before the storm arrived.
“We just had to ferry the firefighters across,” Haynes said.
“They already had plenty of water to draw from,” Channell added.
It was months after the floodwaters receded, and all three had gone back to normal duties in their home counties, when the trio was surprised by recognition at the conference at the beginning of March – even Haynes, who had been tasked with organizing the awards ceremony.
“Even the folks I ordered the awards from didn’t tell me I’d won,” he said.
It was the second award Darby received for his work during the flood. In December, he received a State Achievement Ribbon from the adjutant general of the S.C. National Guard.
But he maintains he was just doing his job.
“We work in a lot of hazardous situations on a weekly basis, but we do it around our own home,” he said. “This was a 1,000-year flood... . I always want to be able to help. My motto is ‘If not now, when? If not me, who?’”
That sentiment is common among professionals who have dedicated their lives to the kind of service seen in abundance during October’s flood response.
“It’s about helping folks,” Channell said. “That’s what it’s all about.”