Christ’s Love in the Cleanup

South Carolina churches help businesses struggling to recover from historic flooding

By Deena C. Bouknight

(WNS)–Kay Stafford was in her Hopkins home, 30 minutes outside the South Carolina capitol, when the Oct. 4 flood inundated the region. The 76-year-old thought her 40-year-old frame business, located in an old bank building, was safe. But when news cameras panned the area, she spotted Webb Rawls Galleries, submerged.

Because of the bank’s steel construction and bulletproof glass, the water filled to the ceiling and held until a padlocked back door gave way. The next day, most everything—including thousands of books owned by a bookseller who shared the lease on the building—blocked the door in a muddy mess.

After surveying the damage in Columbia, Stafford returned home to her husband, who is battling cancer, and prayed. Living on social security, she needed to salvage as much as possible from the shop to keep the business open. Her pastor learned of her loss and sent crews of church members and their children to the frame shop on Oct. 6.

“People poured in,” she told me, sobbing, “They asked me, how can I help? Most of them I didn’t know because our church is so large. They rolled up their sleeves, tromped in the mud, shoveled, carried, and began helping me sort out Christ’s Love in the Cleanupwhat to throw away and what to keep.”

Safford’s loss is large—at least $75,000 in paintings, equipment, frames, and unfinished work.

“We lost all our retirement in the recession, and then this,” she said. “But you know, it’s been worth it to see how wonderful God made the human heart.”

Local economists have yet to peg the flood’s financial impact on Columbia’s small businesses. Unprecedented rainfall and upstream dam breaches inundated areas not prone to flooding. Few business owners had flood insurance. A few days after the main flooding occurred, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley directed small business owners to sites offering tips for long-term recovery. But quick action by churches, customers, and vendors has already saved owners thousands in initial cleanup costs. Cleanup efforts continue, and churches that might not have been familiar with the businesses pre-flood are committed to continued cleanup and restoration as an ongoing local ministry.

Lee Burton, owner of Battery Street Books, lost rare, one-of-a-kind, leather-bound and gold-embossed books. For four days, members of several churches, as well as a group of local Navy recruiters, formed lines and pitched books and frames into large dumpsters. Almost two weeks later, a mountain of rotting frames, books, and furnishings still blocks the door to the shop. Small businesses in Columbia are on waiting lists for more dumpsters. Church crews are on standby to fill them as soon as they arrive.

Andrew Bruce, part-time youth pastor at Fellowship Bible Church, and an employee at his family’s third-generation business, Bruce’s Greenhouses, learned one of its customers needed help after viewing flood photos on Facebook. The Bruces have been supplying Forest Lake Gardens with plants since Joseph McDougall opened it near downtown Columbia 12 years ago. The flood washed away thousands of plants and dumped so much mud on the site that it had to be removed last week with a Bobcat.

“My brother Joseph and I took our crew to McDougall’s place two days after the flood,” Bruce said. “I spent a lot of time just talking to him at first and letting him process through it all mentally. I wanted him to see that he was more than just a customer of ours; I wanted him to see Christ’s love.”

The next day, Bruce organized his youth group and some parents from the church to clean up scattered shards of broken pottery, most of which McDougall donated to his son’s private school so students can make mosaics, sell them, and raise money for flood victims.

“There’s been tons of love here,” McDougall said. “I and other small businesses right here are just amazed. Churches, customers, friends, family they just all came. Kids shoveled mud. They picked up stuff. And that Christian family, the Bruces. Just mountains of blessings are what happened here.”

The flood brought more than destruction, McDougall explained. It changed the community for the better.

“I feel supported, as a business owner, by people I didn’t even know before,” he said. “So much love, it’s overwhelming.”

Besides offering help, random groups kept volunteers and small business owners fed. Mary Waller and Terri Chiles, members of The First Presbyterian Church of Columbia made and delivered hundreds of sandwiches. Student Aaron Elliot, 16, delivered water and hauled load after load of saturated paintings and books out of Stafford’s store.

“It was hard to see all the water damage,” Elliot said. “But still these people have hope and faith in the Lord and keep on believing.”

Volunteers cleared enough debris and mud from McDougall’s garden shop that he has begun selling flowers, pumpkins, and produce in a small area that more than a week ago was submerged by at least 8 feet of water. Another church group moved rescued supplies and cleaned equipment to a temporary space so Stafford can finish $2,000 worth of orders. Stafford is applying for a FEMA loan and hopes to thrive in Columbia once again.

“I have hope because of how I’ve seen people respond to this disaster,” she said.


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