COLUMBIA, SC — After enduring historic flooding eight days ago, and more rain last Saturday, Columbia is getting back to normal in many ways. Tens of thousands of people now have clean drinking water from their home faucets, most school districts are open, most roads are open, and the floodwaters are gone. But Mayor Steve Benjamin said Monday, “We believe that this will be a long-term recovery.”
That’s because a large section of the county is still under a boil water advisory, meaning they can’t drink or cook with the water from their faucets. “We do not anticipate lifting it system-wide anytime in the next day or two. We’re going to be several days, possibly weeks out,” Assistant City Manager Missy Gentry told reporters Monday. “But as soon as possible we lift that. We know that’s inconvenient.”
The boil water advisory is necessary because broken water mains during the flooding might have allowed bacteria or other contaminants into the water system.
The water system has a separate problem caused by a large breach in the wall of the Columbia Canal. The canal directs water to a treatment plant that treats about half of the city’s water customers. During the flooding, a large section of the levee collapsed, so now water is flowing from the canal into the Congaree River instead of the treatment plant. To bring water levels back up to allow the water to be pumped into the plant, the city is building a temporary dam upstream from the breach.
“We anticipate completing that dam this week,” Gentry says. “I wish we could give you an exact date but we can’t. There’s some challenges.”
Sheriff Leon Lott has also lifted the county-wide curfew of midnight to 6 a.m. “We’re on the road to recovery, so I’m smiling big today,” he says.
There are 29 roads that are still closed in Columbia, and that’s causing problems for school bus routes. Richland One Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon says bus drivers were practicing new routes Monday that avoid the closed roads, since they wouldn’t want to be transporting children over unfamiliar routes. He expects Richland One schools to open later this week. Richland Two schools are operating on a two-hour delay this week, while Richland/Lexington 5 is operating on a normal schedule.
The city has also started debris removal in some of the hardest-hit areas. Laura Long’s first floor was flooded, so Monday there was a pile of wood, drywall and other debris in front of her house. She was glad to see the trucks coming to haul it away. “It sounds crazy, just getting rid of some of the debris, but it is wonderful. Every little step counts,” she said.
As further evidence of life getting back to normal, the State Fair will open Wednesday, as scheduled, and the University of South Carolina and Benedict College will have homecoming on Saturday. “We have to begin to balance normalcy again for all of the citizens of Columbia, but maintain and sustain the response for those most-affected areas, and we will continue to do that,” said City Manager Teresa Wilson.