The Great Flood

October 8, 2015.  The South Carolina Midlands has suffered flooding of Biblical proportions, a catastrophe the likes of which has never been experienced in modern memory.  A rare combination of events created a “perfect storm” of record rainfall: a stalled coastal cold front, along with strategically placed low and high pressure fronts, resulted in a powerful “conveyer belt” of continuous moisture pumped in from offshore Hurricane Joaquin. The Columbia metropolitan airport recorded its greatest one-day rainfall ever on October 4th: 6.71 inches compared to the old record, established in 1959, of 5.79 inches. The deluge also broke the two-day rainfall total: 10.28 inches for October 3-4, compared to the previous two-day record of 7.69 inches, set in 1949. Even worse, rainfall event totals were significantly higher east of the airport: the Gills Creek area (a tributary of the Congaree River), where several lake dams broke, was apparently at ground zero and volunteer weather observers reported 21.49 inches, while Leesburg and Eastover in eastern Richland County reported more than 18 inches each. These latter figures represent more than 40% of the average annual rainfall totals for central South Carolina!  Figures were thrown about in the media as to the rarity of the storm: a hundred year, five hundred year, or even a thousand-year event!

The Congaree River crested late Sunday afternoon, October 4, at nearly 32 feet, a record not seen since the 1930s. By the time the water got down to the park, it reached nearly 20 feet. The gage at Cedar Creek became disabled at 13 feet, and I suspect water levels peaked at least three or four feet above that. When I first got down to the park (which was closed) on Tuesday morning, October 6, the foot bridge at South Cedar Creek landing was still completely submerged. Two nearby dams breached, one at Duffies Pond that drains into Cedar Creek, the other at Dry Branch Pond, which also feeds into the park at Weston Lake.

The bridge at South Cedar Creek landing four days after peak flooding.

I finally make it to the park for a kayak reconnaissance survey early Thursday afternoon, October 8, four days after the flood peaked. The water at the South Cedar Creek Landing foot bridge has fallen at least four feet, but I am still able to paddle the kayak across the bridge. I paddle the Kingsnake Trail, five feet under water, due south as far as Bridge K over Summer Duck Slough  where the trail makes a 90 degree turn due west. Along the way the only flood-related wildlife I see is a small red-bellied water snake basking on a small piece of driftwood. My goal is Cooner’s Cattle Mound, an antebellum earthen mound constructed by the slaves of Frederick Cooner to provide a high-ground sanctuary for livestock during big floods. I’m hoping I might find some stranded flood victims on top.

Paddling through a flooded forest like this is a rare, overwhelming experience. The closest high ground to my location is a mile due north along the bluff line at Cedar Creek and two miles to the south, the high bluffs along the south bank of the Congaree River. In between is a solid sheet of brown, muddy water flowing at a high rate of speed. The only navigation clue is provided by the tunnel effect from the trail. Once you leave this, everything is alike, and there is nothing but trees and fast-moving water. I’m not using a GPS and must navigate by what few landmarks there are.

The entire Congaree floodplain was under a massive sheet flow of brown water.

One landmark is a couple of old wildlife food plots (planted when the park was a hunt club) next to the trail, now grown up into forty-year-old stands of densely-spaced, slender sweetgums with a few loblolly pines mixed in. The other is a stand of large pines growing along the west bank of Summer Duck Slough. I turn southwest at this last landmark and pick up my last cue, a large loblolly pine growing just north of Cooner’s Mound. The mound finally looms into view, four feet above water, but I see nothing moving on top. I am surprised when I stop to get out and find the mound was completely under water a few days ago, something I have never seen in more than forty years. Based on the debris line, it appears that the mound was under about a foot of water.

Cooner’s cattle mound was devoid of any flooding refugees.

I’m also surprised to see not a single flood refugee on the mound – no turtle, snake, rabbit, rodent, or other critter. Where did they go? I pass lots of large logs, piled up debris, and other flotsam, thinking the piles must provide temporary sanctuary for stranded wildlife but find nothing. Later, on the way out, I do find a stranded coyote in some thick brush and log piles; and near Cedar Creek an adult pig is wading from one clump of debris to another, but that is all. I also find some tree trunks with millipedes taking refuge on them, just a few inches above the water line. The only wildlife mortality I find is a dead armadillo.

These millipedes were seeking shelter from a flooded forest.

This armadillo was the only flooding victim I found but I’m sure wildlife mortality was very high.

After leaving Cooner’s Mound, I continue north, following Kingsnake Trail past Tear Pond. When the “trail” reaches Cedar Creek, I turn downstream and back to the landing at South Cedar Creek. In four-and-a-half hours of paddling I see only one dead animal, the armadillo, and three live ones: the basking water snake, coyote, and pig.

The day ends on an up note when I hear, calling from the flooded forest, my first Congaree sapsucker of the fall, returning to its winter home after a six-months absence.