Come Hell or High Water
By Sheryl McAlister, a writer based in Columbia, SC
If the national news media hasn’t, by now, done justice to the damage caused by this week’s epic flooding in South Carolina, a walk through one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in Columbia will bring you to your knees.
Piles of muddy debris line the main thoroughfare through one particular neighborhood in this capital city. Debris that only several days before had been people’s furniture, their favorite chairs, televisions, tools, clothing. The dining room tables that held fine china and silver. The memorabilia of busy, full lives.
Those fortunate enough to have salvaged a few family photographs were keeping vigil on this sunny day as the priceless and irreplaceable photos were drying on a clean blanket in someone’s front yard.
Brown-bag lunches, water bottles, fruit, chips and hand sanitizer were stacked on tables in the front yard of a home that was spared. The South Carolina National Guard was directing traffic at a nearby intersection. City of Columbia trucks made their way through the crowded neighborhood scooping up the remnants of a life-time of material items. It was eerily quiet. No horns. No laughter. Just the hum of large trucks and commercial equipment. And the occasional question, “What can I do to help?”
The juxtaposition of one storm-ravaged street sitting perpendicular to another which was untouched and manicured — a brand new flower bed awaiting fresh mulch—was difficult to rationalize. The question confounding those of us who bore witness – how in the world was one street missed and another so horribly damaged?
Some of us were incredibly fortunate. My family is scattered around the city and some of them live squarely in the middle of a couple of the hardest hit areas. But we were spared. My sister’s home sits 100 yards from one of the worst-hit streets in town. The water stopped at her driveway. Her house – untouched.
They helped friends in the immediate aftermath, friends who lost everything. Water had risen to their roof line. Now, mud mixed with insulation covers every single piece of furniture. But somehow in the ruins, they found a most cherished possession – their great grandparents’ wedding rings.
The family’s yard is now covered with all their belongings, and their boat sits in someone else’s yard. The insurance adjusters have been called. They wait and wonder what comes next. They were prepared, as were most people in Columbia. The rain was anticipated. The water was expected. We bought our batteries and stocked up on plenty of bottled water (we thought). We had our favorite munchies.
Nothing, I mean, nothing, could have prepared us for what happened. The power and violence of out-of-control flood waters left victims in its wake and showed no mercy.
My mind couldn’t help but wander to the folks in New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina came in with a vengeance and took whatever it wanted in its path, leaving death and destruction in a city that never had a chance.
It’s not difficult to wager a guess at why things have been different here: South Carolina had leadership at every level, from every conceivable sector. The Governor and mayors took swift, decisive action. The television anchors and reporters who – without fanfare – provided real-time accurate information that helped inform people how to make life-saving decisions. The communities who rallied around their own. The schools that were used as shelters; the city buses that were used to transport those who couldn’t transport themselves. The churches, the military, the National Guard. Engineers who literally saved several communities in the nick of time – by holding back dams that had breached.
The electric company which had crews out before the rains stopped to restore power as quickly as possible. The non-profit community that responded to needs for food, water, clothing and shelter. The local food establishments that fed the hungry and gave away bottled water by the truckloads. The fire fighters and law enforcement officials.
USA Today reported that 11 trillion gallons of water fell in the area in a very short period of time. Another report said it was “…enough water to end the drought in California.” Jon boats, as ubiquitous in the South as fried chicken, rolled off the backs of boat trailers almost immediately in the early morning hours of October 4th and raced from house to house rescuing people as the rivers rose where the streets had once been. Those early extraordinary efforts by ordinary people saved a lot of lives.
The sun came out on the fourth day and even the local weatherman couldn’t control his emotions. The sunshine was the permission we needed to get to work. And the southern hospitality continued with a vengeance. For those unfamiliar with it, southern hospitality isn’t just a charming phrase or an overused cliché. It’s a real thing. And when the times are the toughest, it’s hard core. It’s the roll-up-your-sleeves, help your neighbors as long as they need it, feed ‘em when they’re hungry kind of hospitality.
Now, if you’re not from around these parts, that might sound an awful lot like guts and hard work. And that would be correct. It’s the soul of southern people that stiffens their resolve, pushes them forward and won’t let them quit. And, yet again, in the darkest of days, the soul of this place had been tested.
Those of us who managed to escape with little more than a loss of power and water found new things to be thankful for every day as we ventured out to assess the damage and see if we could help. And we learned quickly not to underestimate the power of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Christy’s PB&J story inspired many of us to dig deep and figure out what our small contributions could be. You see, Christy’s husband is a firefighter. And as firefighters are wont to do when the work is the most difficult, he had worked a double and then volunteered for another shift. He hadn’t eaten all day. Fortunately, earlier that day somebody decided it would be a good idea to make the first responders some food, and they dropped off a bag of Peter Pan Peanut Butter &Jelly sandwiches. And Christy’s husband had enough time to grab one.
Just some random person who decided that could be his or her contribution – to feed a few fire fighters. Christy wrote about the kindness of that stranger on Facebook, what it had meant to her husband and the notion that there is no insignificant contribution when so many are hurting.
There was the couple and their 10-year-old son who spent most of Monday helping friends clean out their mud-soaked home, trying to salvage as many clothes as possible. They filled a truck bed and headed to the laundromat where they washed and folded 20 loads. There was the restaurant that stayed open 15 minutes after it had closed to make that couple hamburgers to go.
There was the young man who, before bottled water became plentiful, bought as much as he could afford and drove around town handing it out to people who looked like they could use a break.
These people may never know who they helped or who helped them. And that’s hardly the point. Time after time, folks asked for help. And help arrived in many forms. Volunteers were out in force helping clean up the yards of total strangers. Among the soggy, discarded items on the lawn of one home were books and Cheerios and computers and discs with carefully handwritten titles like Paul Simon’s Graceland and Liza Minelli Live from Carnegie Hall. I didn’t know this man whose belongings I was tossing into the giant trash bin in his driveway. But I sure liked his music.
The cleanup continues in and around Columbia even as rivers continue to be perilously close to cresting, as roads and bridges are closed, and as dams are still in danger of breaching. We remain steadfast in our mission to return to life as we knew it. Those hardest hit will not be beaten.
It’s not over yet, though, for South Carolina.
This storm is headed south to the coast. The Lowcountry, we call it here. The SC coast has seen its share of hurricanes, so the folks there will be ready. They’ll have to be.
The forecast calls for a 90% chance of rain Saturday.
Copyright 2015 Sheryl McAlister©