After the flood

In meteorological terms, it started as a stalled cold front and a long, deep flow of moisture from Hurricane Joaquin spinning far off in the Atlantic. But never mind the weatherman. In the end, all that mattered was that rain fell harder and longer than it ever had before.

Creeks flooded, rivers overflowed, major roadways washed away and scores of dams breached in last October’s flooding in South Carolina. Homes and businesses in low-lying areas just a short jaunt from the Carolina campus were underwater in the “1,000-year flood” that caused an estimated $12 billion in damage across the state.

Like everyone else, Cory Alpert watched the rain come down that weekend, then watched the live TV news coverage that documented the destruction. The Honors College junior had grown up in Columbia and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. With classes already canceled for Monday (the university would remain closed for nearly all of the first week after the flood), Alpert posted on Facebook, asking friends to volunteer for the inevitable relief effort.

“I went to bed thinking maybe 25 people would sign up and we’d all go help out somewhere,” says Alpert, a sociology major with a minor in Russian. “When I woke up, 500 students had signed up and that quickly turned into 1,000.”

You’ve heard of a trial by fire — this was a trial by flood. How could one person coordinate a thousand student volunteers, a number that would double (and more than double again) in the days ahead?

But Alpert had an ace up his sleeve. He had spent a summer in Brisbane, Australia, studying how the police department there used social media to deal with a series of floods in 2010-11. With those lessons in mind, Alpert had included a separate appeal in his Facebook posting, asking anyone with organizing experience to contact him.

A handful of students did, and though they barely knew each other, they quickly formed a nimble team, using social media skills and other communications tools to connect student volunteers with those who needed help. Their quick response, in sync with dozens of churches, relief agencies and state and federal support, played a key role in recovery efforts immediately after the flood.

“I have a history of doing community service,” says Rachel Kitchens, a senior majoring in international business, economics and global supply chain management, “but my job turned into helping manage the logistics of the USC effort — the supply chain major in me came out. It was very hectic the first two days, but the huge response of students was very powerful to witness. From my perspective behind the scenes, it was a great feeling and a scary feeling at the same time.”

Leah Grubb, an international business, finance and marketing major, saw Alpert’s initial Facebook post for volunteers and thought, ‘Why not?’ She preferred working behind the scenes and knew a thing or two about teamwork.

“I was in 13 organizations in high school and learned time management helping my mom with PTA,” says Grubb, who handled internal communications with the flood relief coordinating team. “But working with that team and with so many volunteers, it opened my eyes to how much can be accomplished. You wish it weren’t under those circumstances, but being a part of the recovery effort, meeting so many people and hearing their thanks — it was heartwarming.”

Truckloads of bottled water and other flood relief donations were rolling in, and churches were calling for volunteers to unload trucks. Flooded homeowners needed help ripping out sodden sheetrock and flooring before toxic mold set in.

Alpert was going on adrenaline, staying up 23 hours the first day and calling everyone he knew to get whatever supplies might be useful. USC’s student health center provided tetanus vaccine for volunteers, and the Alumni Association and athletics department donated Gamecock apparel. The new Alumni Center devoted part of its space as a temporary warehouse for many donated items and a rallying point for volunteers.

After learning that the university had platoons of students eager to help, service organizations began requesting volunteer teams, and news coverage of the recovery efforts spurred even more students to sign up. Kitchens, Alpert and others in the volunteer organizing crew huddled in the new Leadership and Service Center in the Russell House to map out each day.

Leadership coach Luis Sierra and other LSC staff were standing by to help, but they wisely gave the students plenty of elbow room.

“There they were, living out what we are always trying to promote, turning ideas into action,” Sierra says. “That’s the whole point of why the center is here, and they were doing it.”

It was an opportunity for students to shine — with no training wheels or “grownups” taking over.

“I had led alternative breaks and Service Saturdays, but with those there’s always an adult around,” says Morgan Lundy, an English senior from Atlanta who helped coordinate social media efforts.

“During the flood, I kept asking adults for permission to do something, and they would say ‘Just do it.’ So I did.”

‘Why did people do what they did?’

By Oct. 12, a week after the flooding, the city’s water supply had been mostly restored, and classes at Carolina resumed. But while the immediate crisis was over, the need for continued volunteer support was great. USC’s Leadership and Service Center kicked in by taking on a larger role in coordinating opportunities for students to remain involved, from an Alternative Break trip to weekly service trips through the rest of the fall semester, and even as part of the MLK Days of Service in January.

Alpert has had plenty of time to reflect, not only on the flood and its immediate aftermath, but also on larger questions.

“Why did people do what they did? Why do people show up at the scene of a disaster to help out? We know there were 5,000 to 10,000 volunteers in Columbia and the number of sites they were at, but that’s all,” Alpert says. “It gets to this interesting idea in sociology and psychology on pro-social behavior. We know that churches encourage a lot of pro-social group behavior, and that’s something that you don’t see in every part of the country. From an academic point of view, I want to understand that better.”

Alpert plans to write his Honors College senior thesis on the flood recovery efforts, compiling reports from various municipal and government agencies with an eye toward improving preparation and response to natural disasters in the future. For now, he still marvels at the spontaneous response of his fellow students.

“No one hesitated, no one said, ‘What am I going to get out of this?’

“It was an amazing and beautiful outpouring of support,” he says. “I learned so much from the people in that war room when we were coordinating the volunteer response. The cool thing is we’re going to have an entire generation of Carolina students capable of dealing with crisis situations. That’s what I’m so proud of — that I was a part of this group.”

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about