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Heavy rain and flooding stun South Carolina; at least 12 people killed

Even those who went through Hurricane Hugo a quarter-century ago said they had never seen anything like this, the deadly torrents that crumbled roads, submerged houses and cars and killed at least 12 people — 10 in South Carolina and two in North Carolina.

“They’re saying it’s a once-in-1,000-year rainstorm, and I’m inclined to believe it,” said Sean Brennan, a real estate broker who had just checked on a colleague’s house in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia.

“It looked like a river ran through it,” Brennan said.

Even though the house was built 4 feet above ground, the water came up nearly 2 feet into the garage, he said. The backyard was a lake.

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Brennan was one of the few residents driving around Columbia on Monday, navigating detours among more than 550 roads and bridges that had been closed throughout the state. He said he believed 60% to 70% of his town’s residents would recover quickly. But others would suffer much longer.

“There are parts of Columbia, residential parts, that to look at the pictures [are] very reminiscent of what we saw in New Orleans 10 years ago, or parts of the Midwest when the Mississippi overflowed,” he said.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Monday that one of the worst floods in the state’s history had forced emergency water and aerial rescues for more than 175 residents. Days of relentless rain that began Thursday peaked over the weekend, with some areas receiving more than 18 inches between Friday and Sunday.

“This is very real,” Haley said.

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Even as water in some areas began receding and the forecast called for clearer skies, the governor pleaded with residents to remain in their homes, if they still had them. More than 900 people were camped out in emergency shelters throughout the state.

“This is not the time to take pictures,” Haley said.

Local news reported harrowing rescue attempts, including a disabled person whose wheelchair had to be carried above several inches of water by four emergency workers. Some were not as lucky. Among the dead were others whose cars were overtaken by the floods; they could not escape.

“Many of us didn’t expect or understand how significant this could be,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said Monday on MSNBC. “Obviously, all our worst dreams came true.”

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Almost everyone was calling friends and relatives to check on them, or sharing news about the deceased on Facebook. Emergency workers, including thousands of National Guard troops, were knocking on doors.

The state was still battling new dam breaks and evacuating residents, even as the rain had largely stopped. The latest breach came Monday afternoon, bringing the total to nine, and there was danger of more to come as at least two dams were overflowing.

“They’re not broken at this point,” said Cassie Harris, information officer for the South Carolina Emergency Management Division. “There’s water going over them.”

The governor, like many trying to combat the storm, sounded emotionally exhausted. At her news conference, Haley said she had made an unusual verbal request to declare a major emergency in her state and had just spoken with President Obama, who “was extremely gracious and kind” in expressing condolences and offering to help.

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Obama subsequently signed a disaster declaration.

Haley announced that the state would begin setting up water distribution centers for 40,000 people who were without potable water. About 26,000 people lacked power.

One bright spot: All of the state’s hospitals were functioning, even as emergency workers had to spend the night ferrying drinking water to keep some open.

“We’re stronger today than we were yesterday,” Haley said.

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Andrew Orrison, a forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the storm was finally petering out Monday afternoon, with only 1 or 2 inches of isolated rain yet to come.

He said the catastrophic rain was only indirectly affected by Hurricane Joaquin, which had veered well offshore. But some of the storm’s moisture was pulled west toward the mid-Atlantic, compounding a separate storm that had come in from the Southeast.

“We’re going to be seeing conditions improve rather rapidly,” he said, predicting that the mid-Atlantic region would be dry through the weekend.

Some areas were already recovering. Charleston, the tourist mecca that had been a ghost town on Saturday, was beginning to look almost normal again.

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“We even have horse carriages out on the streets,” said Andrea Ham, front office manager at the Planter’s Inn.

Ham was worried about others, though.

Eddie Putnam, a retired polyester plant supervisor, was just hoping the dam did not break on Forest Lake, a 276-acre body of water behind his house. The top rail of his 5-foot pier was already underwater.

His home, on a hill, would be safe. But those on the low side of the lake were looking at yards that were still 6 to 8 inches underwater, he said. He’s been fishing on the lake since he was 11 — more than a half a century — and has never seen the water this high.

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“We’ll never see this again in our lifetime,” he said. “I hope.”

noah.bierman@latimes.com

For more national news, follow: @noahbierman

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