5 years later, daughter of 86-year-old flood survivor remembers harrowing rescue

Updated: Oct. 8, 2020 at 10:40 PM EDT
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LAKE KATHERINE, S.C. (WIS) - This week marks five years since arguably the most devastating rain event in Palmetto State history in 1,000 years.

The 1,000-year flood of 2015 dropped feet of historic rain on Midlands neighborhoods. Half a decade later, some are still picking up the pieces of the losses -- both physical and emotional -- while others are still grappling with the trauma.

For Karen Hall, the memories of growing up on Burwell Lane looked like catching fireflies in the street and playing in the yard with her brother. Hall said there are two ironies in this story – that she and her brother were never allowed to go down to Gills Creek to play as children and what someone told her parents when they bought the land at 921 Burwell Lane decades ago.

“She and Dad were the first people on that road,” said Hall. “They were the first people to build there. Burwell Manning had told Dad, ‘You’ll never have any problem here unless there’s the thousand-year flood...’ and there it was.”

Hall’s parents, Dot and Talley Kelley, had raised them in that house. Mr. Kelley lived there until he died in 2013, two years before the flood.

Now in 2020, Hall lives with her husband in the Irmo area. For all intents and purposes, she’s still close to home. But five years ago she remembers, being a quick trip down the interstate was not close enough.

“A high school friend of mine down the street called me about 6:15 [AM] and said, ‘Karen, have you talked to your Mom?’” Hall recalled. “He goes, ‘Well we’ve got a problem... we are flooded down here.’”

Karen and her husband had just returned from a trip to the beach the night before, but they are both early risers. She said they were both awake and watching the forecast when she got that call. But the water was too swift for Hall’s friend to make it to where Ms. Kelley, at the time 86 years old, was stranded at her house. Hall called her mother.

“She called me right back hollering that water was coming through the back door and coming in on the sun porch that they had,” Hall said. “I said, ‘You get your jewelry and your medicine and your pocketbook and you go to the den and you go sit on the table until we get there.’”

Hall and her husband raced down I-26, dodging flooded roads along the way. The quickly rising area around Gills Creek and Lake Katherine made it impossible to get to Burwell Lane, so Hall’s husband hopped in a neighbor’s boat.

“When they got to her house, she was sitting on the table. The water was up to her chin,” said Hall. “She’s 86 now. They had to open up the screen and pulled her off of the table.”

With just her pocketbook and the clothes on her back, Ms. Kelley was safe. To this day, Hall said she looks back on that day for what it was: traumatic.

“Panic. Utter panic,” Hall described. “Because I didn’t know what we were gonna find. Had we been a few minutes later, she would’ve drowned. She would’ve drowned.”

If you drive down Burwell Lane now, you see a remarkably different set of houses. Most of them are new construction, built up off the ground and updated to mirror a different era. Hall describes it as driving down the road of a Charleston beach town.

As for 921 Burwell Lane, the family sold the house to an investor who gutted and revived it after the flood. All the antiques, two pianos and countless family memories in the house were lost to the torrential downpours and days of water damage. Hall remembers her mother’s words after she was rescued from her home.

“I’m so glad your father didn’t have to live to see everything he worked so hard for… gone,” Hall remembered.

While it’s not the Burwell Lane she remembers, Hall said every so often she takes a drive through the neighborhood.

“I’m glad that I can see that little area booming back up again with the homes,” said Hall. “Life does go on. But I tell you what, even now when we have rain for a couple days, I can’t help but think: is it gonna stop sometime soon?”

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