Climate

As Death Toll In South Carolina Rises, Senator Faces Criticism Over Opposition To Sandy Relief

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

A vehicle is flooded following heavy rains and flash flooding along Black Creek in Florence, S.C., Monday, Oct. 5, 2015.

Hurricane Joaquin missed making landfall on the U.S. mainland, but extreme rainfall caused a “thousand-year” flooding event in South Carolina.

However it’s the state’s senior senator, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has found himself in trouble after being accused of hypocrisy on disaster relief funding. Sen. Graham asked for federal aid — “whatever it costs” — to help his constituents cope with the historic flooding, yet in early 2013 was one of 36 Republican senators to vote against the long-delayed Hurricane Sandy relief package. When Wolf Blitzer asked him about it, he said he did not remember why he voted against it — though he later said it was because the package was not focused enough on those affected by the storm. On two prior occasions, Graham had asked for federal aid for South Carolinians impacted by extreme weather. Oddly, Sen. Graham has used the example of the lawlessness that followed Hurricane Katrina as a reason to oppose an assault weapons ban.

Graham was not alone in opposing Sandy relief — fellow Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) also voted no, as did a majority of the House delegation: Republican Reps. Joe Wilson, Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy, and Mick Mulvaney.

On Monday, Sen. Scott was in Columbia, surveying flood damage. “Certainly there will be FEMA money,” he said.

The state faces what will surely be billions of dollars in damages once the waters recede and it attempts to rebuild and replace lost property. President Obama declared a state of emergency in all 46 South Carolina counties on Saturday, which facilitates federal and state response efforts. North Carolina sent 70 members of its National Guard to aid in response efforts.


The situation in the Palmetto State has somehow only gotten worse since the bulk of the rain hit the state over the weekend. As of Tuesday afternoon, 16 people had died in the floods, the first last week, and tens of thousands lost power. At least 18 dams breached or failed, causing thousands to have to evacuate their homes on short notice before millions of gallons of water burst out of lakes and holding ponds. This makes life even more perilous for a populace told by state officials to stay home and off the roads if their area is safe.


Dam breaks will continue to happen even with the sun shining bright because the state received so much rainfall inland that is now gushing downstream into the ocean in a second wave of deadly water. First responders have had to stage dramatic rescues of people threatened by the initial flooding. Many have seen property get carried away by floodwaters, some lost everything.

The horrible irony of flooding like this is that even those who escaped being immediately impacted now face an indeterminate period of time without clean water — on Monday, some hospitals were preparing to evacuate over fears of water shortages. Population centers like the city of Columbia remain under a boil water alert, requiring residents to boil tap water for 60 seconds before drinking it over fears of contamination.

Local wildlife has also obviously been impacted, yet the animal that has received the most attention is the fire ant, some of which formed floating rafts to escape the floods.


Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, who heads the state’s National Guard, said it was a “Hugo-level event.” He was referring to the cataclysmic hurricane that caused $7 billion in damage in 1989 and killed 13 people in South Carolina.

In a Monday afternoon press conference, Governor Nikki Haley (R-SC) warned residents to stay inside where it’s safe and to refrain from going outside to take pictures of the water — and to rely on the photos available in the media.


Meteorologist Steve Bowen told USA Today that the fact that the flooding in South Carolina was the sixth “1-in-1,000 year” rain event since 2010 was unprecedented. That term means that the event had a 0.1 percent likelihood of occurring in any given year. “We have certainly had our fair share in the United States in recent years, and any increasing trend in these type of rainfall events is highly concerning,” said Bowen, who works for reinsurance firm Aon Benfield.


The usual caveats about the fact that climate change does not surely cause a singular weather event aside, there are more and more of these events happening. Weather deals with specific weather events on specific days. Climate deals with trends over years and decades. As greenhouse gases trap more heat in the atmosphere, the earth warms up. Warmer water allows more moisture to evaporate, and warmer air can hold more moisture. This strengthens and intensifies rain events that likely would have happened anyways.

2015 is well on its way to being the hottest year on record. Hurricane Joaquin intensified in an Atlantic Ocean experiencing record sea surface temperatures.

“This is yet another example, like Sandy or Irene, of weather on ‘steroids’, another case where climate change worsened the effects of an already extreme meteorological event,” Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said.

The trend of more intense precipitation events was on deadly display this week around the world.

Violent rainstorms on the French Riviera over the weekend killed 19 people and dumped 10 percent of the area’s average yearly rainfall in two days. At least 11 people died in China after Typhoon Mujigae made landfall on Sunday. CNN meteorologist Tom Sater said it intensified rapidly, much like Hurricane Joaquin. “Nobody expected this to get to Category 4 strength,” he said.

A particularly intense rainy season in Guatemala led to a deadly mudslide on Thursday that killed at least 161 people, with hundreds more missing.