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Stories of people and communities going about the work of recovery from the floods of 2015 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.00000177-2120-db48-a97f-fb222fb50000In October of 2015, South Carolina received rainfall in unprecedented amounts over just a few days time. By the time the rain began to slacken, the National Weather Service reported that the event had dumped more than two feet of water on the state. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the subsequent flooding was the worst in 75 years.Then, one year later, rain and storm surge from Hurricane Matthew dealt a blow to many in South Carolina still at work recovering from the 2015 floods.SC Public Radio Flood Coverage from the Beginning

Smart, Post-Flood Rebuilding Should Limit Rebuilding

During the Flood, Gills Creek Watershed Association (GCWA) Program Director Erich Miarka was driving around looking to see where he could help.

“I just drove in circles for three days, trying to see what had failed, what hadn’t failed, what was on the verge of failing.” Miarka said he posted information about what he saw on the Association’s Facebook page. “I was trying to get out there and see as much of the watershed as possible.”

According to its website, the watershed contains over 70 miles of streams and lakes, and 47,000 acres of land. It is the largest impaired urban watershed in the state, meaning its ability to carry out its natural functions has been reduced to the point where an imminent threat to health, life, or property has been created. As municipalities across the state continue the rebuilding process after October’s historic flood, people like Miarka say now is the time to rebuild urban watersheds in a more modern and smarter way.

A Comparative Look

Past and present pictures of Forest Drive
Credit Gills Creek Watershed Association
On the left, a picture of Forest Drive in 1917. On the right, a picture of a section of Forest Drive in 2016.

The photo on the left was used in the May issue of The Big Splash, the newsletter of the GCWA. Provided by Fort Jackson, the pictures shows how Forest drive looked in 1917. With the heading “A History of Alternation,” the caption used states “the meandering Gills Creek that flowed slowly from Dent's Pond was changed to a straight, swift, deeper stream in order to drain the land for construction of Camp Jackson.” The photo on the right shows a snapshot of Forest Drive today. The low-lying, liner road is lined with significant development.

Satellite image of Forest Drive
Credit Google Maps / Google
Aerial Satellite image of Forest Drive

The image above is a Google Maps Satellite view of the section of Forest drive close to where volunteers cleaned flood debris behind Trenholm Road. The aerial view allows us to see how much development currently sits in this section of the watershed.

LISTEN: GCWA Program Director Erich Miarka talks about cleanup progress at a section of Gills Creek behind Devine Street.

“I think that how we re- develop around the creek is critically important,” Miarka said. “If we just build back the same way that we have built before, we’re bound to repeat this disaster again.”

Several structures along Forest Drive were damaged during the flood. Many businesses like Forest Lakes Fabrics have since re-opened. Another hard hit area in the watershed was a stretch of Divine Street and Garners Ferry Road. Some commercial buildings remain in ruins. Miarka said rebuilding in these areas would be a mistake.

Collecting Flood Debris
Credit Thelisha Eaddy / SC Public Radio
SC Public Radio
GCWA Program Director Erich Miarka collects flood-debris from near Gills Creek

“That means not building back the Subway, and the Title Loan Place, and Title Max place right next to the creek. That’s putting people in harm’s way. That’s putting property in harm’s way and that’s insuring that the next time it floods, we’re going to have a costly disaster,” he said.

As GCWA Program Director, Miarka is dedicated to restoring the watershed through education, grass-roots action, public and private partnerships, remediation projects, and controlled development.

“Ideally, there would be no structures in the floodplain.” Miarka said this does not mean people shouldn’t be able to use floodplains. “We’re working on a greenway project that will go along Gills Creek from Kilbourne Rd. down to Bluff Rd.” Miarka said this project started three years ago with a grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission.

“A lot of other communities, use their river or stream corridors in the floodplains as paths of recreation that could be something like a greenway; like a walking and biking trail. Miarka said the Little Sugar Creek in Charlotte, NC had a lot of similar issues that Gills Creek is currently dealing with.

Gwen Cook is a Mecklenburg ParkS and Recreation Planner. She said the Urban Little Sugar Creek Greenway in the Uptown Charlotte of area is a place for the community.

“You see people on bikes. You see people on skateboards. You see people walking, jogging and using the greenway daily.”

The greenway is a little over a mile long and includes stone walls, water features, swings and access points to the creek.

“There was a stream enhancement project that happened that was very important,” Cook said. Stabilizing the slopes of the creek to prevent erosion during major floods, she said, was very important.

“This greenway flashes up with a flood frequently and it can go 12 feet deep in 40 minutes, It’s just an incredible creek in that way.”

Map of Little Sugar Creek Stream Restoration Projects
Credit Charlotte Mecklenburg Stormwater Services
Map of Little Sugar Creek Stream Restoration Projects

…that was very important to stabilize the slopes to prevent erosion during major floods… Gwen Cook, Mecklenburg Parks and Recreation Planner

LISTEN: Gwen Cook, Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Planner talks about the economic benefits of the Urban Little Sugar Creek Greenway.

According to the Mecklenburg County Government YouTube Page, “when complete, the greenway will feature over 19 miles of trails and land connectors, from Toby Creek Greenway on North Tryon Street to Cordelia Park just north of uptown. The greenway will continue through the urban section and on to the South Carolina state line, conveniently linking Central Piedmont Community College, Carolina Healthcare System and the Park Road and Carolina Place shopping areas among many other destinations.”

Another Potential Problem for Gills Creek

Miarka said cleanup efforts tend to slow down in the summertime for a couple of reasons. “It gets really hot and we don’t want to stress out volunteers too much." Because the floodplain and the areas around the creeks really grow up with vegetation, Miarka said it gets difficult to access some of these areas.

An industrial dumpster stuck in Gills Creek
Credit Thelisha Eaddy / SC Public Radio
SC Public Radio
An industrial dumpster stuck in Gills Creek

Because summers in the Midlands can bring big rainstorms, there is a big concern that the debris could cause localized flooding issues.

“If you look down where we are now, there’s five, large industrial dumpsters and a lot of vegetation debris that’s kind of forming artificial dams." Miarka said this in-stream debris may not cause problems in lesser-developed areas, but when you get closer to roads, bridges, culverts and people’s houses, he said there is a concern that debris could “back-up” the water, during the next big rainstorm and cause some localized flooding issues nearby.

LISTEN: How in-stream debris could cause localize flooding issues.

From the Reporter’s Desk

From watersheds to flood plains, October’s historic rain event and flood has given us the opportunity to re-learn about many aspects of our local environment. Below, two experts from their respective fields talk about the importance of swamps and differentiating between flood plains and floodways.

LISTEN: Dr. Susan Cutter explains the difference between floodplain and floodway.
Listen: Erich Miarka talks about the many ecosystem services of swamps.