When a low-pressure system syphoned what the National Weather Service estimated as one to two feet of rainfall from Hurricane Joaquin’s outflow and flooded South Carolina, news photographers relied on general aviation aircraft to document images as the disaster unfolded.
Mike Stewart, the Associated Press southern regional photo manager, coordinated the news organization’s visual coverage and said the challenge was to capture compelling and informative images without putting staff into harm’s way.
“We had to tell the story even when you couldn’t travel by roads or cars. It was water everywhere—water over roads, water over bridges, water in subdivisions—but we still needed to do news reportage and people needed to see the destruction,” said Stewart, who rented a four-place Robinson R-44 helicopter so photographers and reporters could capture the scenes in pictures and words.
“I spoke to the photographers on the ground and they couldn’t get anywhere so it became a safety issue,” Stewart said. “We didn’t want anyone to get hurt and quite frankly, at that point aerials were a safer environment. The AP doesn’t use drones in the United States and has no plans to use them at this time.”
Stewart rented the helicopter near Charleston because it could hover above unfolding scenes and travel across the region as necessary. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called the floods a “1,000-year flood event.” As of early Oct. 8, 13 dams had failed and the disaster had claimed 17 lives in South Carolina and two in North Carolina as floodwaters spread from the coast to the mountains, according to Reuters news service.
Fixed-wing aircraft also took an active role in the disaster response. South Carolina’s Civil Air Patrol assisted relief efforts when 12 CAP crews from three wings fanned out mid-week to take photos and make damage assessments in the wake of the record rainfall.
Capt. Matt Hamrick, the CAP’s state public affairs officer, said in a media release that eight aircraft from South Carolina were joined by two each from the patrol’s Georgia and North Carolina wings. According to Col. Francis H. Smith Jr., the incident commander for the flood mission, aircrews were focused on the state’s rivers for possible search-and-rescue operations. “Squadrons across the wing expect to perform air, ground, and communications operations in support of disaster relief efforts throughout this week,” said Hamrick.
Aerobridge, an organization that coordinates the use of donated aircraft to help provide disaster relief, is calling on more GA pilots to get involved in the disaster relief efforts by signing up to volunteer on their website.