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County, city deal with Florence’s wind, rain

Posted: September 17, 2018 4:18 p.m.
Updated: September 18, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

C-I WEB EXTRA: American and South Carolina flags flap at an entrance to a house on Laurens Court across from the Camden Archives and Museum as strong winds blew through the area on Friday afternoon well ahead of Hurricane Florence.

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Schools, businesses, county offices and the library closed. Groups cancelled various activities. Even Walmart closed for a time. Shelters -- including ones for pets -- opened. Kershaw County, which had started preparing for the storm early last week, announced it would be operating at “OPCON 1,” its highest level of “operating condition” for emergencies, on Friday.

Blow by blow

By 5:30 p.m. Friday, the county was under both flash flood and tropical storm watches because, at that point, it was hard to know exactly what direction then-Hurricane Florence would take after coming ashore near Wilmington, N.C. At one point, the track for the storm’s center predicted it would go along a line between Rembert and Elgin. It ended up much further south, but that didn’t stop the need for residents to exercise extreme caution. And for first responders to deal with all sorts of calls.

On Friday, officials began alerting Lake Wateree residents that the lake might peak at 101.7 as early as today. Duke Energy issued a second assessment later during the weekend stating the lake would likely spill on Monday, but crest at no more than 104 feet, but revised it again Monday for not more than 102.5 feet.

By late Friday morning, the National Weather Service (NWS) put Kershaw County under a Tropical Storm Warning because tropical storm-force winds were expected during the next 48 hours.

That evening, the calls started coming in from the northeastern part of the county of trees down, power lines down, with some of them catching fire. Officials repeatedly urged residents to stay off the roads for their own safety and the safety of
emergency and utility crews. Early Saturday morning, calls started to be heard out of Lugoff as well.

Later Saturday morning, the rain and wind began to pick up in Camden. Ironically, however, Florence’s overall strength began to weaken as it transitioned from a hurricane to a tropical storm and then a depression. By noon Saturday, the county reduced its emergency status to CAPCON 3 and, even later, 4.

At that point, the concern transitioned from wind and immediate rain to the long-term effects even heavier rainfall in North Carolina might have on Kershaw County. Some portions of North Carolina received up to 40 inches of rain. As lakes and rivers continue to swell, officials worry that water will make its way south, downstream, eventually to Lake Wateree and the Wateree River.

Saturday night, the NWS issued a special weather statement and then a Lake Wind Advisory for Lake Wateree in an effort to make sure any boaters who might possibly be out on the lake sought safe harbor.

On Sunday, the NWS issued a Flash Flood Warning for the northern part of the county, switched back to a Flash Flood Watch, and then issued another Flash Flood Warning for the same area. The second warning was supposed to have ended at 1:45 a.m. Monday, but ended up being extended to 10:30 a.m. Monday.

For these and other reasons, the Kershaw County School District started classes two hours late on Monday.

Around noon Monday, the NWS issued a Flood Warning for the Wateree River at Lake Wateree through that at least that evening. At 9 a.m. Monday, the stage was at 98.1 feet (flood stage is 100 feet), but said heavy rainfall from Florence would continue to flow south along the Catawba and Wateree rivers and forecasted minor flooding. The NWS expected the river to rise to at least 101.9 feet early today.

That expectation came with warnings that piers, yards and docks could become submerged. If by some chance flood stage reached 102.5 feet, roadways near Beaver Creek could have flooded.

Around the same time as it issued the Flood Warning, the NWS issued a special weather statement warning that the additional moisture and the day’s heat would lead to a heat index of around 105 degrees Monday afternoon.

Around the county

While Kershaw County would see its share of rain and wind, the emergency activity was, thankfully, not nearly as heavy as potentially anticipated, according to Kershaw County Emergency Preparedness Director Gene Faulkenberry. In fact, the number of emergency calls did not significantly increase due to the storm, he noted.

“Most of the calls we received came in through the hotline,” Faulkenberry said. “Most of those were questions regarding shelter openings or questions about road conditions. Some were downed trees and power outage calls. Most of the calls were from the upper part of the county.”

He said at one point he was aware of some 1,200 power outages in the county, but most were restored as of Monday afternoon.

A few areas in the Buffalo/Mt. Pisgah section of the county, particularly near the Lynches River, experienced some flooding, including parts of S.C. 903 and Munn Road, causing some traffic re-routing, Faulkenberry said. There was also some flooding near the Bethune Women’s Club in Bethune, which caused some traffic re-routing in the town on Saturday, Faulkenberry said.

Bethune Town Councilman Don Witham confirmed this, noting that there are several areas in the area -- but fortunately, not near the town -- that are sometimes prone to flooding issues.

All in all, Bethune did not see too many problems associated with the storm, Witham said.

“We had some wind and rain, and the power was out in some areas of town for a little while, but it could have been much, much worse,” Witham said.

Faulkenberry said he was pleased with the county’s preparations and felt like they were prepared for whatever Florence might bring.

“We watched the storm for about a week before it ever made landfall,” he said. “The spaghetti models made it difficult to predict exactly where it was going to go, but you prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

Faulkenberry also said he was pleased with the county’s efforts at keeping the public informed via the hurricane hotline and the county’s social media presence.

“I thought we did well in getting information out -- I think we averaged about an update an hour on social media,” said. “Duke Power has also been very good with keeping us informed about the situation with the Catawba basin.”

Faulkenberry said the county would be carefully monitoring the situation on the Wateree River and at Lake Wateree and would be prepared to respond accordingly.

Camden calm

Despite the severity of the warnings -- keeping people off the streets as officials wanted -- things turned out to be relatively calm in Camden for much of the weekend. That doesn’t mean public works crews and firefighters weren’t busy.

Camden Public Works Director Tom Couch said outages started on Friday -- the longest lasting perhaps three hours -- with more popping up all the way through Monday morning.

“Crews were working around the clock,” Couch said. “The outages weren’t all at once, but they just kept coming and were scattered throughout the system.”

He said what wind and rain the city did get saturated the soil, adding to the problem with downed trees, tree limbs and power lines.

Going forward, Couch said the city will continue to watch both Lake Wateree and the Wateree River.

“The forecast is not going to affect us at the wastewater treatment plant, and we’re not worried about the (drinking) water plant at this time,” he said.

Couch said one thing the city did was start letting the water out of Kendall Lake all the way back on Wednesday, well ahead of Florence.

“We got it down to 2-1/2 to 3 feet below normal,” Couch said. “Even with the additional rain, it only came back up to 1 foot below normal.”

He said the city planned to return the lake to its normal level Monday afternoon.

“Not a lot,” is what Camden Fire Department (CFD) Chief John Bowers said of what firefighters had to deal with from Florence.

“We had random power outages, trees and power lines down and some car wrecks,” Bowers said. “We were really very, very fortunate.”

He said two car wrecks took place around the same time and at the same location: U.S. 521 (South Broad Street) and Ehrenclou Drive. Apparently, as Camden Police Department units worked the scene of the initial wreck, a passing motorist rear-ended one of the officer’s patrol car.

The CFD responded to one house fire early Monday morning, on DeLoach Street in east Camden, but determined it was not directly storm related.

“We responded around 12:30 a.m. and were out there until about 3 a.m. It was started by a candle and caused significant damage to the interior. A man living there was taken by EMS for smoke inhalation to the hospital, treated and released,” Bowers said.

Like Couch, Bowers said the CFD is also monitoring lake and river levels, but it’s also going beyond that.

“Any low-lying areas, when rivers rise … we have creeks and tributaries that can back up and we have areas that are flood prone,” he said. “A little bit of water can float a car. People get in trouble very easily when going through water or around barriers.”

(C-I Editor Jim Tatum contributed to this story.)

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