Historic flood in South Carolina

Veterinarians describe rescue efforts, overwhelming support
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Dr. Tracy Wales’ clinic in Columbia, South Carolina, was filled with 11-foot-deep water.

On Sunday, Oct. 4, that floodwater prevented her from getting within eyesight of the building. The day before, she and others in the five-veterinarian clinic had prepared for the storm by ensuring all patients went home, moving electronics off the floor, raising examination tables, and placing sandbags around the doors.

She was able to walk to the clinic Thursday, Oct. 8. It had a missing door, broken windows, and a collapsed back wall. Ceiling tiles were soaked, and insulation hung down along with tree branches, pine straw, medicine bottles, and books, she said. The floor was covered in foul-smelling mud, scattered with trees and fish.

Dr. Wales and Dr. Nori Warren own Four Paws Animal Clinic, which they were able to reopen in a rented location in less than three weeks through donated time and money from friends, clients, colleagues, and strangers. They didn’t know whether they would even be able to repair their flooded building, Dr. Wales said.

They had been able to save and clean some surgical equipment and kennels, and the clinic had off-site data storage. But little else could be saved.

“All the medication was soaked through,” she said. “Our X-ray machine, our furnaces—we had two furnaces that were shot—nothing was salvageable.”

A long flow of moisture from Hurricane Joaquin hit the Carolinas, with the heaviest rain falling in the capital, Columbia, and nearby counties to the southeast, starting late Saturday, Oct. 3, and continuing into the following morning, according to a National Weather Service article. The storm produced a new single-day record for Columbia of 6.7 inches of rainfall and a new consecutive two-day record of 10.3 inches.

Dr. Dick Green, senior director of disaster response for the ASPCA’s field investigations and response team, rescues cats from the roof of a home. (Photos courtesy of ASPCA)

Some areas in the same county, Richland, received more than 20 inches of rain over two days, according to the NWS. Dams failed, culverts and pipes washed out, and people were saved in water rescues.

Early announcements from state emergency managers described curfews, deaths, sandbag barricade construction, flash flood risks, and the gubernatorial state-of-emergency declaration. Communiques written in the weeks that followed described National Guard aid, hundreds of people living in shelters, 1 million–plus meals served by food pantries, hundreds of roads remaining closed, tetanus vaccination clinics, aid registration, and shelters for people with pets.

Dr. Mary Keisler, president of the South Carolina Association of Veterinarians, said she had been amazed at the contributions from veterinarians and the public toward helping people and animals in need during the flood, including through efforts to rescue and shelter animals and clean up homes and clinics. She and others in Cherokee Trail Veterinary Hospital in Lexington collected pet foods for shelters and helped clients of destroyed clinics access medication, such as heart medications for dogs, and she noted that others have given medications to clinics in need.

“It has been really the most unbelievable thing I have ever experienced and seen, and you cannot be prepared until you go through it,” Dr. Keisler said.

Rescuing, sheltering animals

Dr. Boyd H. Parr, South Carolina state veterinarian and director of Clemson University’s livestock and poultry health program, said a mix of state agencies, nonprofits, and universities rescued stranded pets and horses, helped cattle owners find feed supplies for sale, and provided pet-friendly emergency shelters following the flooding.

“As we’ve all learned, people don’t tend to leave when they’re told to evacuate if they can’t take their pets with them,” he said.

Local authorities managed flash floods, the most impacts from which were seen in Columbia, Dr. Parr said. But water pooled around Georgetown in eastern South Carolina, leaving sustained flooding.

Dr. Dick Green, senior director of disaster response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ field investigations and response team, arrived in Georgetown while the floodwaters were receding toward the ocean. The ASPCA, as part of the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition, helped the state distribute donated food and supplies to animals in need, rescue pets from flooded houses, and collaborate on setting up an emergency animal shelter intended to relieve the burden on other shelters.

State and county governments also worked to remove animals from water, examine damage, and distribute food, according to the South Carolina Emergency Management Department. Teams from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, for example, rescued dozens of animals in the days after the flooding began.

For NARSC members, those water rescues involved climbing from johnboats and into windows while wearing protective equipment, including dry suits and helmets, Dr. Green said. He counted 16 cats in one flooded house that he entered after climbing a ham radio antenna to enter a second-story window, and rescuers would return to remove 20 cats over two days. But animals were lost. Dr. Parr said about 90,000 poultry drowned on two farms during the flood.

Members of the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition rescue animals stranded by flooding.

“Our poultry industry is very large,” he said. “While that’s tragic, it’s really lucky it wasn’t more than that.”

Dr. Parr had received reports that about 40 cattle also died, and some pets and horses had drowned, he said. But he also has heard of extraordinary efforts made and risks taken to rescue animals.

Dr. Green described the damage from the flooding as devastating and “truly historic.” But he noted the flood had less animal impact than did hurricanes Katrina or Floyd, citing better preparation among government agencies and improved abilities to respond quickly. People are better prepared to handle disasters than they were 10 years earlier, so fewer animals are affected, he said.

The flood also has increased interest in a state emergency animal aid program. Dr. Parr said that the South Carolina Veterinary Reserve Corps, established about one year earlier, had five members prior to the flood and at least 40 afterward.

“Some members who will be joining did offer assistance in a private role, but now we’ll have an opportunity to get them better prepared and trained and properly deployed,” Dr. Parr said.

Overwhelming damage, generosity

Dr. Wales said generosity from donors and volunteers helped her clinic reopen in the rented office after the flood.

A friend and client created a GoFundMe campaign Oct. 6. Donors provided more than $50,000 within the month.

The money let Dr. Wales and Dr. Warren pay staff members, buy new computers and a washer and dryer, place a deposit on a rental office, and hire contractors for electrical work in the clinic, Dr. Wales said.

“I couldn’t believe it—couldn’t believe the support we have from our community,” Dr. Wales said.

A cousin of Dr. Wales and her brother sent her donations outside the campaign, she said. Clinic owners and other colleagues, some of them strangers, also have given desks, shelving, a microscope, a centrifuge, an anesthesia machine, surgical instruments, and office furniture. Other companies have provided pharmaceuticals, books, and continuing education notes to make up for lost ones.

She quoted one drug company representative as telling her in early November, “There’s a time to sell, and there’s a time to help, and this is a time where we need to help you.”

Some clients had shown up at the rented office space ahead of reopening to paint walls, hang towel holders, and clean light fixtures. Some arrived unannounced at the old clinic building to wash walls, shovel mud, and scrub recoverable equipment.

Dr. Wales said she has tried to thank some of those who have helped.

“It’s really hard to express in words how grateful we are, and, in our attempts to do so, they always just say, ‘Well, of course, of course, you’ve done so much for us,’ or ‘We love you,’ or ‘I would do anything for you—you take care of my family member,’” she said. “And it’s just so much that it’s really overwhelming.

“Who knew that so many people loved us so much?”