Mother Nature stole the headlines in 2015 as The T&D Region experienced one of the most significant natural disasters in recent history.

A historic flooding event swept through the area in early October, impacting 7,400 homes and property owners and causing about $2.8 million in individual home and property damage.

That’s on top of the close to $1.2 million in damage to public infrastructure in the three counties.

The Edisto River and the Congaree River overflowed their banks, running people from their homes and cutting off major routes.

But Orangeburg County Emergency Services Director Billy Staley said the situation could have been worse.

"The biggest advantage we had was the lead time going into it," he said. "We knew we were going to get that heavy rainfall. We were able to ramp up resources to be better prepared for it."

The flood was the top story of 2015.

The rains

The rain began late Friday, Oct. 2 and fell steadily on Saturday before picking up in intensity late Saturday afternoon into Sunday morning.

Even before storm's arrival, weather forecasters were warning of potential flooding and a state of emergency was put in place. A flash flood warning was posted for The T&D Region from the morning of Oct. 2 through the morning of Oct. 5.

The rainfall was associated with a low-pressure system developing off the Southeast coast and Hurricane Joaquin, a category 4 storm. The low-pressure system combined with moisture from the hurricane to cause rain to fall over the same area for several days.

The rain slowly moved out of the area Sunday afternoon and into Monday morning.

The eastern part of The T&D Region including Holly Hill, Eutawville and the extreme southeastern part of Calhoun County near the Stumphole community received between 16 inches and 20 inches of rain.

Below are some of the local rainfall totals reported to the National Weather Service:

• Holly Hill, about a half-mile north of the city -- 20.28 inches

• Holly Hill NWS cooperative -- 16.61 inches

• Santee, about two miles northeast of the city -- 16.5 inches

• St. Matthews -- 12.84 inches

• Orangeburg NWS cooperative -- 11.29 inches

• Orangeburg Airport -- 10.59 inches

• Bamberg NWS cooperative -- 8.45 inches

• South Fork of the Edisto River in Denmark -- 7.71 inches

The rivers

The North Edisto River crested at 13.64 feet at 10 p.m. Oct. 5. It was the third-highest level on the river since recordkeeping began a century ago. The North Edisto’s flood stage begins at 8 feet.

The Congaree River at DAK Americas (formerly Carolina Eastman) in Sandy Run crested at 126.9 feet above sea level around 2 a.m. Oct. 5. Flood stage is 115 feet.

The South Edisto River in Bamberg at U.S. 301 was about 12.11 feet at late Friday morning. The river was below flood stage at 16 feet and did not reach flood stage.

Rescues, road closures

The flooding forced the evacuation of homes and businesses, primarily in flood plains and low-lying areas.

Caskets were found floating above ground from Holly Hill to Springfield.

The Holly Hill area and the eastern part of the county were hit hardest by the storm. A number of water rescues occurred in the Holly Hill and Eutawville areas, plus other isolated areas.

About 80 residents from a Holly Hill apartment complex had to be rescued Oct. 4 as flood waters approached. The residents were taken out by boat.

Orangeburg County opened a shelter at the Santee Convention Center before moving the shelter to Bethune-Bowman Middle/High School in Rowesville.

Several roads were flooded, with rising water eventually leading to the closure of several Orangeburg routes, including portions of U.S. 301, Stonewall Jackson Boulevard, Glover Street and Russell Street. By the end of the week, most local roads were open.

As a result of the flooding in Calhoun County, several roads were closed, one bridge was washed out and about 40 homes were damaged. The county’s DSS/DHEC Rickenbacker Building suffered significant water damage as well. The services are now being provided at temporary locations.

Low-lying areas in the southeastern portion of Bamberg County were also impacted, requiring a few rescues of residents from the high waters. Farrell Crossroads and Zig Zag Landing were among the roads that were closed due to flood waters.

Public schools in Orangeburg and Calhoun counties were closed for the week while Bamberg County public schools reopened earlier in the week. Several colleges and private schools in the region also reopened during the week.

The heavy rains also delayed the Orangeburg County fair’s opening.

Agriculture

Providence row crop farmer Dean Hutto had about 18 inches of rain at his farm on the southeastern part of Orangeburg County.

Hutto planted about 1,500 acres of soybeans, 600 acres of cotton and 350 acres of peanuts.

Hutto said he did not harvest any of his cotton crop and lost about 75 percent of his peanut crop in the field. His soybean crop is also still in the field and it has been too wet to plant wheat.

"The whole impact financially has not been realized," Hutto said. "It is not just the farmers. It is the people who sell me fuel and the people who sell fertilizer and the trucking business and people who haul these commodities. The whole ag community and all these small towns are driven by agriculture."

Agriculture officials say the total direct and indirect impact statewide is $588 million.

Due to the federal disaster declaration, farmers were eligible for low-interest federal loans though most were banking on crop insurance to help them weather some of the financial hit.

As cotton, peanuts and soybeans sat in the field well beyond normal harvest times due to flooded field conditions, crop quality and yields suffered. Concerns were raised among many farmers about their ability to survive into next year with the threat of bankruptcy looming on the horizon.

Veteran farmers said 2015 will go down as one of the worst years in agriculture. The flooding rains followed summer heat and drought that also put a dent in crop success.

Fruit and vegetable farmers also suffered as their crops were under water as well.

It is estimated that farmers in T&D Region saw crop losses of about 80 percent in cotton, 80 percent in peanuts and between 60 to 70 percent in soybeans.

Farmers across the state begged South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to request federal funds to help offset losses.

Haley has said farmers shouldn't be treated differently than other businesses in South Carolina. Haley has said crop insurance should suffice and that she's asked the federal government to expedite the insurance claims.

S.C. House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White announced plans to introduce a Palmetto Farm Aid Bill when the legislative session begins this month. Specifics of the farm bill have yet to be released.

The South Carolina Farm Bureau is asking for a total of $376 million in federal dollars to offset crops damaged by the flood.

About $330 million is for crops destroyed or damaged in the field. The remaining $46 million is for winter crops that can't be planted in the muck.

Farmers hope for a better 2016.

"I think some people are going to have to sit down and look at their business plan going into next year," Hutto said. "Some people are going to have to out of necessity cut corners and look at expenses and see what they are going to tighten."In addition to the flood, commodity prices remain low. This on top of a difficult 2015 has Hutto and other farmers hopeful 2016 will bring happier news.

Damage assessment

As flood waters began to recede, Bamberg, Calhoun and Orangeburg county residents and public response agencies were declared eligible for federal disaster aid.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency opened up several disaster recovery centers in the region including in Orangeburg, Holly Hill, Neeses, Eutawville, St. Matthews and Bamberg.

The Orangeburg and Eutawville centers are the only ones still open in the region, according to the FEMA website.

Residents can still receive information and answers to questions by calling the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s helpline at 800-621-3362.

FEMA will accept applications for federal disaster assistance through Monday, Jan. 4.

Orangeburg County damage

About 6,073 residents in Orangeburg County have registered for assistance, totaling about $2.4 million, according to Orangeburg County Emergency Services and FEMA officials.

In Orangeburg County, damage to roads, infrastructure and public buildings totals approximately $439,000. FEMA will pay 75 percent of the cost and the county will be responsible for a 25 percent match.

In addition to road damage, there were also reports of roof damage to a handful of county government buildings. The county magistrate's office has been repaired and work is also underway on the library, the administrative building and the YMCA.

"We still have three major projects FEMA is working on with us. We don't have the dollar figures back from those yet," Staley said.

Staley said the county will work with the various response agencies to see where changes can be made.

"We will do some little changes in the Emergency Operations Center procedural wise but there will be nothing major," he said.

Overall, the Emergency Services department responded to about 200 calls and put in 2,000 man hours during the emergency response for first five days of the storm.

Calhoun County damage

In Calhoun County, about 813 individuals have applied for assistance, totaling $338,188.

Public damage in Calhoun County totals $409,766. The county is assuming that it will be responsible for up to 25 percent of these costs, which are currently being paid from contingency funds in the budget.

The estimated damage to the DSS/DHEC building (Kenneth Rickenbacker Building) is $200,840.

"We have been meeting with our insurance company and FEMA regarding what to get done on the DSS/DHEC Building," Assistant County Administrator Ted Felder said.

"We have completed the mold remediation contract," Felder said. "We are now starting the restoration portion of the process."

"The flood waters did significant damage to the sheetrock and floors in the building, along with the pavement in the parking lots outside the building," Felder continued. "We have to get clarification as to whether or not we have to have approval from FEMA ahead of restoration or if we can just go forward with it."

Other damage in the county included:

• About 300 feet of Orangeburg Department of Public Utilities' water pipe into the Cameron area was washed out at an estimated cost of $93,000. The pipe has been repaired.

• The St. Matthews sewage-treatment plant suffered between $25,000 and $30,000 in damage, including $15,700 to the plant's pumps and wiring. The remaining portion includes fencing and sedimentation ponds.

• Roads, labor, materials, fuel, equipment and equipment hours cost about $74,751.

Looking back, Calhoun County Emergency Services Director Bill Minikiewicz said officials did about all that could be expected during the storm given the staffing and amount of volunteers.

"We only have one full-time employee. That is less than any other county in the state, including the two counties that are smaller than us," Minikiewicz said.

He said the county is always seeking training opportunities for individuals in an effort to increase staffing.

Bamberg County damage

In Bamberg County, 505 individuals applied for assistance totaling $190,677.

The county also received about $375,000 in damage to public infrastructure.

Bamberg County Administrator Joey Preston said the main public damage the county sustained is related to roads, especially those along the Edisto River.

"That was the brunt of it," he said. "Several roads were washed out and in the process of getting repaired, but the continuous rains have made it difficult to get there to repair them."

The National Guard has helped with road repairs.

Bamberg County Emergency Services Director Sharon Hammond said in an effort to recover from the storm, a long-term recovery committee has been formed in the region. The committee is made up of churches and volunteer organizations to ensure all those needing help continue to receive help.

Hammond said “there is always room for improvement” when it comes to storm response.

"We always need better communication between agencies," Hammond said. "I think our governor represented us very well and she has been extremely supportive in this effort of getting the counties up and getting any services or anything we need to do our jobs better."

Hammond said the public also needs to always prepare and heed warnings issued by emergency personnel and evacuate if told to do so.

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD

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Business Reporter

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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