CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Holy City became a barren, flooded labyrinth Saturday as heavy rains deluged coastal South Carolina and much of the East Coast.
Many streets and intersections on the city’s downtown peninsula were submerged Saturday as Charleston faced the possibility of record flood levels as a stream of wet weather arrived from the Atlantic, partially powered by Hurricane Joaquin.
Five to nine inches of rain had fallen by midday Saturday over a 24-hour period in Charleston—enough to flood yards and gardens downtown, swamp parked cars, and cause the cancellation of Sunday church services.
Local government offices and schools have been closed since Friday, and many businesses did not open on Saturday. Police also closed road access to downtown Charleston, prohibiting incoming traffic and making a city that is normally bustling with locals and tourists seem like a ghost town.
Most people stayed indoors during Saturday’s near-constant stream of rain, and the few cars traveling through downtown streets essentially navigated through a soggy maze, forced to reverse course and zig-zag along city blocks in search of clear streets and high ground.
Meanwhile, other residents paddled surfboards, canoes, and kayaks through the streets, having an easier time.
On Saturday President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in South Carolina, triggering federal support as the state grapples with flooded roads, electricity outages, and emergencies caused by the storm.
In Charleston, the flooding seemed at its worst around high tide at about 1 p.m. when rainwater could not as easily drain off the peninsula. Waves from Charleston Harbor washed over the city’s seawall along The Battery at the tip of the peninsula. A mile or so away, Colonial Lake, a shallow pond that takes up about two city blocks, became Colonial Sea, spilling out over sidewalks and across nearby roads, lapping up against the front porches of nearby homes.
During a lull in the rain early Saturday morning, John Stuhr took his poodle for a walk along The Battery.
The president of J. Henry Stuhr, Inc. funeral home, Stuhr said his firm canceled four funerals Saturday because the ground was too wet to dig graves. Furthermore, Stuhr had been invited to a black-tie wedding Saturday evening, but the ceremony was canceled because of the weather.
“Now that’s pretty serious,” said Stuhr, who boasts of being a fifth-generation Charlestonian.
The whole day, he said, was a loss for the city.
“It stymies everybody,” he said of the threatening weather, “because you don’t know what to do.”
Also walking along The Battery, looking out over a gray, misty harbor, were Joe and Julie Rutkowski. The tourists from Boston had spent the day walking around the city, changing outfits midday when their clothes became sodden.
Sure it was wet, they conceded, but they felt media reports overhyped the bad weather.
“All we see is puddles,” said Julie Rutkowksi. “It’s like, ‘What’s going on in the news?’”
Family members keep calling them, they say, worried for their safety.
“They think it’s Noah’s Ark,” said Joe Rutkowski.
A few blocks away walked Jacob and Laura Burgette, on their way to a wedding that had not been canceled, but was at least moved from a church to a private home.
The couple’s 10-mile drive to the wedding was “easier than I thought it would be,” said Jacob Burgette, although it did involve three detours.
As the Burgettes headed to their event, other residents made the most of the remaining daylight on a very wet and subdued Saturday. Some residents enjoyed music and cocktails on their porches, while others cruised the streets on bicycles, with more than one person cradling a surfboard under an arm, ostensibly to enable floating through an intersection, perhaps riding the wake of a passing car.
By nightfall the rain was picking back up in intensity, flash flood warnings were being extended, and Charlestonians were wondering how much more water the night and remaining days might bring. Meteorologists predicted that another four inches of fresh rain could fall before the storm fades away Monday, making it unlikely floodwaters would quickly recede. For at least another day, the kayaks and canoes could cruise along Charleston streets.