Folks along Peeples Street in northern Richland County, South Carolina are accustomed to relentless rain. Crane Creek overflows its banks at times, spilling into low-lying rural areas and causing flooding that creeps up to windowsills. Yards fill with a soupy mess of mud and muck. But the people who live on this street on the edge of the Denny Terrace neighborhood are a hardy lot. Chores move indoors until the rains stop. Folks clean up. Life goes on. When it began raining in early fall, Denny Terrace residents weren’t alarmed. But South Carolina was pounded by weeks of punishing rain—8 to 12 inches during the first five days of October alone. The result was historic flooding. In some areas, it rained more than 25 inches in 30 days. In Denny Terrace during the early hours of October 3, 47-year-old Sonny M. fought the raging floodwaters and won. Sonny is deaf. This is his story.
Sonny, a lanky 6-foot-2 with blue eyes and an easy smile, lives in a mobile home near the back of his cousin’s eight-acre property. His cousin’s house, set back about 200 feet from Peeples Street, sits at the front of the lot; a driveway along one side leads to a chain-link fence that divides the property into two distinct areas. Behind the fence, the cousin’s carpentry shop faces the back of the lot. Sonny’s home is perched on a gentle slope. Trees and dense brush line the back of the property and about 200 yards down from Sonny’s home Crane Creek trickles toward the Broad River. Shop and mobile home are guarded by a German shepherd-Doberman mix named Barney.
What follows is Sonny’s account of his ordeal as told through an American Sign Language interpreter:
Around 11 o’clock Friday night I decided to bring the dog in. I could see the water in the yard was a little above my ankle. Barney had never been in my home before and he was fighting me so I forced him inside and closed the door. It wasn’t really secured, but I decided to go to bed.
It may have been 2 in the morning when I felt a really hard thump and woke up. The door was open and Barney was gone. I didn’t know where he was. The water in the trailer was just below my knees. My loveseat was floating. The water was rising as I climbed onto the roof. As the trailer started to move, it hit something and I fell. I knew then that I had to get to the roof of the carpentry shop about 50 yards away.
Between the trailer and the shop I could see a 3-foot-by-8-foot piece of wooden wall frame with Styrofoam insulation bobbing in the water. The current from Crane Creek was flowing from right to left, pushing the trailer with it. I decided to just go with the flow, hoping it would take me toward the shop. There was so much debris from the shop and other houses—trees, metal sheeting flowing in with the current. I thought this is risky. I learned to swim in Boy Scouts but I never had to swim hard. I knew if I didn’t swim hard I’d be gone, out with the current.
As the trailer bumped up against some trees, I jumped off the roof and swam toward the wooden frame. I was struggling against the current. I was breathing really hard, out of breath. I was barely able to grab the foam. There was so much debris under the water. This wasn’t like swimming in a pool or a lake where there’s nothing to fight against, where the water is clean. With this water, you don’t know what’s in it—chemicals, paint—and it’s really, really thick. If something had hit me in the head I would have died for sure.
There was an eddy where the floodwaters flowed into the L-shaped carpentry shop. That whirlpool of calm waters became a rest stop for Sonny and his makeshift life raft. Rain pouring down, he collapsed on the frame to catch his breath. As dawn broke, Sonny began to make out the peak of the shop’s metal roof and scrambled to reach it.
On the rooftop, with water up to my ankles, I could see everything, and it looked like one giant lake all around me. No houses, no rooftops, nothing. I could see only the treetops. My mobile home, I couldn’t see it at all. My pickup truck, nothing. Just water all around as far as I could see. I was scared, I was soaking wet, I was cold. I started screaming very loud. And I just kept screaming and screaming.
Firefighters in a motorboat circling Denny Terrace heard Sonny’s screams. He was rescued, along with a family found in the attic of a house across the street. Two days later a friend took Sonny back to Peeples Street. As they sloshed through a foot of water still pooled in the driveway, the friend could hear barking. There, on the roof of the carpentry shop, the same place where Sonny had stood screaming, Barney stood waiting to be rescued.
Floodwaters had ravaged Sonny’s home, the carpentry shop and Sonny’s cousin’s home of 35 years. Sonny was left with just the clothes he was wearing that night. His modest possessions were gone—keepsakes, tools he used to make a living as a carpenter. His pickup truck, his only means of transportation, was sitting in several feet of fetid water. His primary means of communication, a laptop and smartphone he used for video and text messages, were destroyed.
Sonny needed help, the kind of help provided at disaster recovery centers we set up to assist survivors with recovery. To accommodate those needs, centers are equipped with accessibility tools such as video remote interpreting for those who use American Sign Language and phones that have large dial buttons with Braille.
In the early, chaotic days of the disaster, Sonny and his 84-year-old cousin had become separated but both had registered for assistance with FEMA. Reunited two weeks later, both visited Christ’s Lutheran Church, which was hosting the Denny Terrace survivors. Sonny’s cousin was doing his best to interpret but the questions were proving to be a challenge. The cousin is also hard of hearing and his sign language skills are limited to a few signs he picked up over the years and the American Sign Language alphabet.
The phone call to one of our Disability Integration Advisors came in on a Sunday from the Denny Terrace neighborhood. Disability integration experts provide guidance, training and assistive devices to fully accommodate disaster survivors with disabilities. The caller said a survivor who was deaf needed full communication access for an update on his application and his home inspection scheduled the next day. An American Sign Language interpreter from FEMA quickly headed to the church. She began interpreting for staff in our various programs, volunteer agencies, and for Sonny.
Over the next weeks, with help from a non-profit agency that is one of our national partners, Sonny obtained a new smartphone, and through our disaster assistance program, he received rental assistance and other help.
Throughout the upheaval, Sonny has remained positive. He believes he can repair his pickup. He’s fixed engines before. And if he has to start life all over he’ll do that, too. He’s also done that before.