COLUMBIA, S.C. » Gills Creek flows past the Columbia Ballet School, and, a few miles downstream, a shop where people can pawn car titles to pay monthly bills. It fills lakes ringed with stately, white-columned homes worth nearly $1 million and snakes by a working-class apartment complex where locals say it’s best to leave before dark.
Over the past week, as the water rose after days of unrelenting rain in the heart of South Carolina, the creek spilled misery and pain on rich and poor alike, robbing both of the things most precious to them.
The once-a-millennium storm and mammoth flood that rolled in on a Sunday have further tested a state that has endured a year filled with more than its fair share of trauma: Back in April, a day before Easter, a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man in the back in North Charleston. In June, police said, a white man gunned down nine black church members in Charleston. The state was roiled for 23 more days before lawmakers removed the Confederate flag that had flown outside the Statehouse.
Then, just as things calmed down, rains of biblical proportion began to fall.
Gills Creek spans 70 miles across Richland County and connects a network of lakes like a string of pearls. It is the main artery of a watershed that includes more than 45,000 acres and 100 ponds and lakes on the eastern side of Columbia. Many of the area’s 140,000 residents live in spacious, ranch-style homes that surround more than a dozen of the largest lakes, all of them created by modest dams.
"We have no natural lakes in South Carolina. Every single one is man-made," said Derrec Becker, spokesman for the Emergency Management Division. "And when the water rises, it has to go somewhere."
At least 17 dams failed or were breached, and dozens more are still being monitored. Those breaches and failures, on lakes that feed into each other and into Gills Creek, caused a chain reaction downstream.
A 20-foot boat that had been used to whisk neighbors to safety had washed up, overturned, on Beverly Steinhaus’ lawn, and sat Thursday beside stacks of mattresses, couches, ripped-out sheet rock, bedframes and bags of clothing and toys that had been pulled out of the house, whose backyard is separated from the creek by only a line of tall azalea bushes.
The house — two stories and five bedrooms — is elevated, but even so it received 5 feet of water by 8 a.m. Sunday that went from ankle- to waist-deep in minutes as it rushed through the floor vents, she said. Steinhaus, her husband and 6-year-old son were rescued through their front window, 6 feet off the ground, and swam through a current that toppled cars and sent appliances crashing through the neighborhood.
The normally placid creek, which snakes behind the homes on Burwell Lane, is a part of life for many neighbors who regularly fish on its banks. On the rare occasions it snows, Steinhaus said, her son and other children throw snowballs into its icy waters.
When she returned to her house Monday she had to break down the door, which had swollen shut.
"The first thing I noticed, there was furniture piled on top of each other. It was mayhem. Part of the walls had been knocked out from furniture sloshing around," she said, before getting to the most startling part for many who made their way back: "There were fish. Hundreds of fish from the creek, and they were dead, all over my house. I just remember trying not to step on the fish. It was horrifying."
On Thursday, looking out at her belongings scattered on the grass, Steinhaus began to cry.
"You see the pile on our front lawn and it’s our memories," she said. "It’s the toys my son played with. It’s his bed. It’s everything."
Stephen Marshall was swept away by the floodwaters Sunday morning while trying to reach his 85-year-old neighbor — later rescued by her son-in-law — and clung to a tree until a firefighter scooped him up.
By Thursday, Marshall had almost completely emptied his waterlogged belongings onto the lawn, where they were picked up by a garbage truck and hauled away.
Inside his den, the leather mask his father wore while umpiring high school baseball was saved, stashed on a shelf 6 inches from the 6-foot water line. His father, who died 15 years ago, had also given him a ball signed by Hank Aaron he’d snagged while working as a ticket-taker for the now defunct Greenwood Braves, and that too survived.
But Marshall’s eyes welled up as he looked at binders and boxes full of baseball cards, sopping wet.
"It sounds trivial, but it’s something I started as a kid. We collected baseball cards and I’ve had them since I was a child," Marshall said. "Stuff is stuff. A mattress, an HDTV, that means nothing to me. But it’s the emotional attachment. Those memories. They’re gone."
Jason and Ashley Kirkham bought their home a year ago, and had just added their 14-week-old daughter’s first line to the height chart scribbled onto a now-sodden wall, below dashes showing the growth of their older daughter, who celebrated her second birthday a week before the storm.
"She was 27 inches," the young father said. "Throwing that away really hurt. It hurt the most."
At least those living upstream still had dirt under their feet. Just a few hundred yards south, Gills Creek undercut the bank beneath Liberty Income Tax, which partially collapsed into the creek, and an adjoining TitleMax car title pawn shop.
On the opposite bank, floodwaters inundated Taboo Adult Superstore to create the odd scene of sex toys bobbing in water inside what used to be a Taco Bell. Safe at home and logged in on his computer, manager Larry Boyer watched the water rise by way of the shop’s security system, which kept sending video images despite the deluge.
"We had all sorts of things floating," said Boyer.
And the water just kept rising.
About a mile downstream, at Shandon Crossing Apartments, Maple Kimble awoke to realize the complex was flooding in the middle of the night. She woke up her husband, who normally uses a wheelchair, and their 8-year-old granddaughter and quickly began gathering a few essentials before sloshing out the door and into a breezeway, away from the creek.
"I’ve got fluid in my lungs from heart problems. It was all I could do to get out," said Kimble, 58. Neighbors pitched in, and all three finally got to dry ground.
Downstream, Mike Zeek managed to dash out of his home with his wife and dog as the floodwaters swallowed his front lawn. He said he doesn’t know when or exactly how they’ll recover since insurance claims and a mountain of paperwork await.
But life will return to Gills Creek and this part of Columbia, he says, and that’s worth celebrating.
"After the Charleston shooting we didn’t riot, and we’ll come together from this," Zeek said. "I think South Carolina should get some kind of award for resiliency."
Associated Press writers Jeffrey Collins and Susanne M. Schafer contributed to this report.