Utilities Recover, Adapt in Hurricane Joaquin’s Aftermath

Cleanup and mitigation efforts are far from over after South Carolina bears the brunt of a '1,000-year storm'
Utilities Recover, Adapt in Hurricane Joaquin’s Aftermath
Gates to the sampling building at a wastewater treatment plant in Summerville, South Carolina — located on the Ashley River — had to be opened to release the water inside the facility and prevent the fence from being swept away. (photo courtesy of Summerville Commissioners of Public Works)

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Although East Coast utilities might have been relieved to hear that Hurricane Joaquin would remain out to sea instead of hitting the coastline as originally predicted, the storm still managed to inundate many states with extraordinary rainfall in early October, and it was South Carolina in particular that wound up seeing the worst of it.

“We are at a 1,000-year level of rain,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said at a press conference held on Oct. 4. “That’s how big this is.”

A 1,000-year rainfall means the amount of rainfall in South Carolina has a 1-in-1,000 chance of occurring in any given year, explained CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward.

This storm of epic proportions brought heavy rains that caused massive flooding, led to the closure of hundreds of roads and bridges and resulted in a number of weather-related traffic and drowning deaths. As utilities across the state dealt with the storm’s aftermath, some were fortunate enough to make it through relatively unscathed while others dealt with substantial damage and hardship.

Wide-ranging effects
The Gaffney Board of Public Works, which provides water, sewer and electrical service to over 23,000 customers in Gaffney and the surrounding areas of Cherokee County, had no significant damage or cleanup to contend with.

“We had to go back in and haul in some stone for the unpaved drive going into the pump station where the creek had overflowed,” says Kim Fortner, assistant manager. “Other than that we didn’t really have any problems.”

Others weren’t so lucky.

The state’s capital, for example, has had to contend with a breach at the Columbia Canal dike.

The plant located along the Broad River in downtown Columbia produces drinking water for most of the city’s residents, many of whom went without water or boiled their water for several days due to the low water pressure.

WLTX reported on Oct. 13 that a temporary dam at the Columbia Canal reached completion nine days after the breach, allowing the city to tap back into its water resource as usual. In the months ahead, a replacement dam will have to be built.

Perfect storm
Still others weathered a storm that presented an unusual mixture of challenges. Charlie Cuzzell, manager of the Summerville Commissioners of Public Works (CPW), says that as a coastal community located about 20 miles west of Charleston, the city not only received roughly 24 inches of rainfall in a matter of a couple of days but also had to deal with rivers that are tidally influenced.

Between the abnormally high tides resulting from the hurricane winds and the freshwater overflow from the upper part of the state due to heavy rains, it created the perfect storm, Cuzzell says, bringing water in from multiple directions. While Summerville’s major facilities are built on fairly high ground and avoided any major issues, localized flooding covered roads, overwhelmed major drainage structures and submerged about a half dozen wastewater pump stations.

“The priorities were specifically for the pump stations that were underwater,” Cuzzell says. “We were able to go in there and once the stormwater receded it was pretty easy to repair them. A lot of times it was just a matter of restoring power and then resetting the pumps. We really didn’t have a lot of damage at our pump stations.”

“On the water and sewer side we were able to recover pretty quickly,” he says, “but the other infrastructure – especially roads – are probably still being impacted now.” The state insurance reserve fund will provide funding for the immediate damages, he explains, and anything not covered by them will be reimbursed by FEMA.

Adjustments forthcoming
Cuzzell says there won’t likely be any large-scale adjustments at the Summerville CPW. “We knew which areas were in the low areas already,” he says. “We’re pretty flat here. There’s not a lot we can do to control the stormwater. We have made many of our pump stations submersible already.

“We’ll probably secure some of our lower lying sites a little bit better if we feel like we’re going to have that type of situation again, but I’ve been here for 28 years and this is the first time we’ve had this level of flooding,” he adds. “Because of the rarity of the event, there probably won’t be any major changes to what we’re doing.”


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