COLUMBIA, S.C. >> It could take until the weekend for the threat of flooding to ease in storm-tattered South Carolina, where a senator warned of a potential billion-dollar cleanup bill, two more people died in the floodwaters and the flagship university sent a home football game 700 miles away.
Rivers rose and dams bulged as storm water from days of heavy rains made its way to the Atlantic Ocean, causing a second round of flooding downstream.
Gov. Nikki Haley paid a visit to the coast, which she said would still be in danger for another 24-48 hours.
“We’re holding our breath and saying a prayer,” she said.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham warned the disaster could “break the bank” of federal emergency funds, possibly topping more than $1 billion.
In another image of the storm’s otherworldly toll, state officials said caskets have popped out of the ground in 11 instances in six counties.
At least 19 people in South Carolina and North Carolina have died in the storm, while many survivors returned home to discover they’d lost everything.
Wendy Dixon burst into sobs after realizing her wedding album and dozens of photos of her two sons and three grandchildren were destroyed.
Overcome with emotion and barely able to walk across her waterlogged carpet, Dixon grasped the arm of a niece inside the Columbia apartment.
“Everything is gone!” she wailed. “My clothes and all can be replaced. But my little things, my pictures, are all gone.”
It was another anxious day of waiting for floodwaters to recede around the capital city.
About 1,000 residents near the compromised Beaver Dam were told to evacuate Wednesday morning, though the order was lifted several hours later when crews shored up the dam.
Haley said 62 dams across the state were being monitored, and 13 had already failed. However, she said South Carolina was fortunate that those represented only a small fraction of 2,000 or so dams regulated by the state.
At a news conference, Haley and other officials were asked repeatedly about whether the state had spent enough in previous years to maintain dams and other infrastructure.
“I think the analysis of this can be done after” the danger from the floods passes, she said in one testy response.
But Graham said the federal lifeline must be treated with care to avoid a “pork-laden monstrosity” like the federal government’s aid package to the Northeast after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. He warned state and county officials not to use the disaster as an opportunity to ask for money unrelated to flood damage.
He also said it would take weeks to get a reliable damage assessment.
“We’re talking hundreds of millions (of dollars), maybe over a billion,” he said while visiting a shelter in Columbia.
As they waited for floodwaters to drop, officials also struggled to preserve Columbia’s water supply. That supply was threatened earlier this week when a portion of the Columbia canal collapsed. Workers have been trying to build a dam and have dumped giant sandbags into the water to plug the breach. But when a second portion of the canal collapsed Wednesday afternoon, they were forced to look at other options, Mayor Steve Benjamin said.
Benjamin said contingency plans include pumping water from the canal to the reservoir that feeds the water plant and working with the National Guard to pump water directly from the Broad River. In the meantime, he asked the city’s 375,000 water customers to conserve water.
And in an extraordinary move for the football-crazy South, the University of South Carolina announced it was moving Saturday’s football game against No. 7 LSU some 700 miles to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The university said more than 80,000 fans expected for the game in Columbia would have put too much stress on weakened infrastructure.
In the most recent storm-related deaths, a group of five railroad workers were in a pickup truck when it drove past a barricade and plunged into the water where pavement was washed out. Three men in the pickup managed to get to safety around 3 a.m. Wednesday and divers later found the bodies of two men, authorities said.
The workers were in town to help repair washed out tracks.
Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Curtis Wilson said the barricade was in the wrong lane, but regardless, the railroad workers should not have been out because there was a city-wide curfew in place.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said all nine deaths in the county have come from people trying to drive in flooded areas. Officers have located the cars belonging to several other missing people.
“I’m fearing the worst on that,” Lott said.