COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Days of torrential rains kept much of South Carolina and its capital gripped by floodwaters Monday as emergency responders promised renewed door-to-door searches for anyone still trapped after a weekend deluge and hundreds of rescues.
At least eight weather-related deaths in two states have been blamed on the vast rainstorm.
Heavy rain kept falling into the early hours Monday around the Carolinas from the storm that began swamping the Southeast late last week, part of an unprecedented low pressure system that dumped more than a foot of rain across South Carolina and drenched several other states.
Sunday was the wettest day in the history of South Carolina’s capital city Columbia, according to the National Weather Service. The rainfall total at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport was 6.87 inches, the most rain that’s ever fallen there in one day. One weather station near downtown recorded 17 inches in as many hours on Sunday.
“The flooding is unprecedented and historical,” said Dr. Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist and director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, in an email to The Associated Press.
He said the unique double punch of the upper level low — aided by a “river” of tropical moisture in the atmosphere from Hurricane Joaquin spinning far out in the Atlantic — gave the monster rainstorm its punch.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has said the deluge is the kind of storm seen only once in 1,000 years.
On Monday, she said 381 roads and 127 bridges were closed across the state, and 1,000 law enforcement officers and 1,000 transportation department personnel were working to make them safe. All roads and bridges will have to be checked for structural integrity, which could take weeks or longer.
The governor said most people are heeding her plea to stay off the roads.
“I think they get it. All you have to do is look out the window and see the flooding. It doesn’t take long for you to get in your car and realize you’ve got to turn back around,” Haley said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show.
More than two dozen shelters were open, Haley said. Utility crews, meanwhile, were working to restore power to 30,000 customers, she said.
The deluge made for otherworldly scenes in Columbia as floodwaters nearly touched the stoplights Sunday at one downtown intersection. Rainwater cascaded like a waterfall over jagged asphalt where a road sheered apart, and many cars were submerged under flooded streets.
The flooding forced hundreds of weekend rescues and threatened the drinking water supply for Columbia, with officials warning some could be without potable water for days because of water main breaks. The capital city told all 375,000 of its water customers to boil water before drinking.
Elsewhere, nearly 75 miles of Interstate 95 — the main link from the Southeast U.S. to the Northeast — was closed.
Among those rescued were a woman and baby lifted to safety by helicopter, but efforts were far from over.
Columbia Police Chief William Holbrook issued a statement Monday saying search teams would check for any people still needing evacuation, and crews will mark the front doors of homes checked with a fluorescent orange X once searched.
Those in distress should call 911 and they will be taken out on military vehicles and bused to shelters, he said.
Many schools and colleges, including the University of South Carolina, canceled classes Monday and some businesses planned to stay shuttered. State climatologists have said the sun could peek out Tuesday.
One of the hardest hit areas in Columbia was near Gills Creek, where a weather station recorded more than 20 inches of rain — or nearly half the city’s average yearly rainfall — from Friday through Sunday. Shaw Air Force Base, east of Columbia, has seen more than 19 inches of rain over the last few days.
Rescue crews used boats on Sunday to evacuate the family of Jeff Whalen, whose house backs up on Gills Creek.
“I got up around 6:15 and a neighbor called to tell us we should get out as soon as we can,” Whalen said. “About that point it was about a foot below the door and when we left it was a foot in the house. It came quickly obviously.”
At least eight weather-related deaths have been reported since rains began spreading over the Eastern Seaboard, which appeared to dodge the full fury of Hurricane Joaquin which was rapidly weakening as it veered farther out into the Atlantic.
Among the most recent deaths reported was a South Carolina Department of Transportation worker who died in flood waters Sunday while overseeing work near downtown Columbia.
Another death Sunday occurred when a woman in an SUV was swept into flood waters in Columbia. Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said the woman’s body was found Sunday afternoon, about 12 hours after she disappeared in flood waters near downtown Columbia.
At least six other deaths were reported in South Carolina and North Carolina in previous days.
The flooding also prompted acts of kindness in Columbia.
Rawlings LaMotte, 38, a residential real estate broker, said he and a friend got into a small motorboat and ended up ferrying several people to safety, including a man who had been out of town and found roads to his home blocked.
“Until you’ve experienced something like this, you have no idea how bad it really is,” LaMotte said.
Julie Beitz, president of the Forest Acres neighborhood association, said she paid for a stranger to stay at Extended Stay after her car was submerged on a nearby flooded road.
“You do anything you can to help people,” Beitz said.
>>From our Charleston sister station: Couple gets married despite flooding
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina; Mitch Weiss in Greenville, S.C.; Jonathan Drew in Durham, N.C.; Susanne Schafer in Columbia; and Meg Kinnard in Blythewood, S.C.