First Responder

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Chris Kip ’95 finds himself at center of Columbia flood rescue and recovery.

An ABC News reporter stopped Christopher Kip ’95 to inquire about the incoming storm as he scoped out the weather conditions in Columbia, South Carolina, the morning of Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015. Kip told the reporter nothing was going to happen, despite the weather forecast. It was merely sprinkling, and Kip believed that the light rain was all they were going to see.

“If she didn’t get the story she was assigned, it was probably all my fault,” says Kip. “We thought we had gone overboard with our planning and supplemental staffing.”

No one could have predicted the catastrophic floods of Oct. 3-4 and the weeks that followed. A year later, the tragedy that took 19 lives remains a defining moment for many first responders, family members and the city of Columbia.

Kip serves as a battalion chief in the Columbia Fire Department, overseeing the downtown area. On the day of the flood, his immediate supervisor was on special assignment, so Kip’s role was elevated in an instant—he found himself making the calls, ultimately deciding who would get the best shot at survival.

“I was responsible for more than 130 firefighters and for responding to all emergency operations in the county,” he says. “In a typical 24-hour period, we might have 90-120 calls come in, and between Saturday night and mid-day Sunday during the flood, we received and processed 1,050 calls. One minute, we were sitting there looking at 20 calls, and then it all broke loose. Within an hour, 1,000 calls were waiting.”

Every call was a plea for help: 150 people evacuated from an apartment building, a pregnant woman trapped on the second floor of her home, an entire family standing on top of their car, a man with paraplegia who was unable to escape his attic, where he’d gone for safety.

Palmetto Health Baptist Joaquin Flood-Water Shuttle Operations

Palmetto Health Baptist Joaquin Flood-Water Shuttle Operations

All at once, there were multiple emergencies in need of response—this went on non-stop for more than 15 hours.

“It was flash triage,” says Kip. “If I think about the top emergencies a first responder would have in an entire career, we had 14 of those going on at any given time.”

As the hours wore on, Kip also had to cope with being at the station instead of out with the battalion.

“As fighters came in, soaked and exhausted, it was humbling,” says Kip. “I knew how hard we were going to have to work them and, essentially, abuse them, for the greater good.”

The ingenuity of fire and swiftwater rescue teams was tested, as they tried just about anything they could think of in order to save lives—things that would never be approved on a typical day. One wrapped himself in a fire hose during a water rescue in order to reach a person in distress, and one let go of a floatation device so the current would take him downstream to people in danger.

Nine firefighters went missing throughout the course of the flood—those critical “mayday” calls remain vivid in Kip’s mind. All nine were found.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder is as real for firefighters as it is for members of the military,” says Kip, who found being interviewed about the events cathartic. “It will take the rest of my life to unpack everything from the experience, but it’s good to talk about it.”

After working 12 hours beyond his scheduled shift, Kip went home Sunday evening. By that time, 60 percent of the city’s emergencies were under control. Monday brought the start of important, long-term planning work.

Dams had broken, roads were washed away, homes were beyond repair and lives were lost. Hospitals had run out of water, and the city was close to running out, too. There were individuals trying to dam up the river to save the water supply, and a fire team was sent out to rescue those people if anything went wrong.

“The only reason it didn’t turn into a total catastrophe is because of the character and creativity of firefighters and the community,” says Kip.

Flood waters in Columbia, S.C.

Flood waters in Columbia, S.C.

A Flood of Kindness

Kip’s wife, Katherine, welcomed her husband home Sunday night. She had heard from him a few times throughout his seemingly never-ending shift.

“He was physically exhausted, and he needed to rest,” she says. “He told me the stories attached to the sirens and helicopters I was hearing. I knew I had to do something. Monday morning, we got to work, and it seemed like every person who could help worked hard to figure out what they could contribute.”

Katherine Kip’s parents had been through a fire, so she was intimately familiar with salvage and recovery work, and the complications of dealing with insurance companies. She knew how to categorize belongings, and she knew to be particularly mindful of photographs and other family mementos.

The community banded together to take on the physical tasks related to demolition and clean out, and save clothing and other mementos; those whose homes were unscathed took the clothes that could be saved back to their homes to wash them, and laid out thousands of photographs to dry.

“I was getting to know family members who weren’t even there,” she says. “We saw entire lives happening through pictures. It was very emotional to connect with families in that way.”

Parents who could not leave their children to join the clean-up effort ventured out with wagons, dropping off sandwiches, tape and boxes to volunteers.

“There were so many volunteers, they couldn’t be coordinated fast enough,” she says. “I took our seven-year-old daughter out to help us, and she worked to pull up baseboards with her little hammer. It was really important for her to see how people come together to help each other.”

Katherine Kip volunteered in wealthy neighborhoods and disadvantaged areas. While the devastation was the same by definition, it was anything but the same in terms of perspective and loss.

“There weren’t as many resources or friends with resources when it came to the poorer areas,” she says. “Neighbors whose homes went unharmed set up tents that became like mini-Walmarts. Donations were dropped off, and people could get anything they needed, from bleach to fans to gloves and masks. Over the course of a week, there grew to be four or five tents every few blocks.”

Kip says it was amazing to be a part of the effort.

“After it was over—and I say ‘over,’ even though many are still dealing with the aftermath—I would sit and think about what this city experienced,” she says. “I had an idea of what my city was before this, but it changed how I felt about my city moving forward.”

Finding a Path

Chris Kip’s Davidson years took him all over the world. He spent a semester in India, went on three archaeological digs in Cypress, Greece—including once as an alumnus—and traveled to Turkey. He was passionate about his study of English literature, languages and anthropology.

“I planned on majoring in physics, but a single course with English Professor Randy Nelson changed my mind,” Kip says. “To this day, I remember the way he explained to us the difference between the words ‘beautiful’ and ‘sublime,’ and I remember the way he talked about finding ‘elegant solutions’ to problems.”

Following Davidson, Kip was lost. He thought about graduate school to continue studying French and Hindi. He thought about medical school. He said he’d never return to his hometown, but he wasn’t sure what else to do.

“I returned to Columbia and started working a few part-time jobs,” says Kip. “The first 18 months were spent wandering. I had no idea what I wanted to do next.”

On a typical drive home from one of those part-time jobs, Kip noticed a “Volunteers Needed” sign posted outside of the Columbia Fire Department. He completed an application and answered a few questions in an in-person interview. “Are you afraid of heights?” No. “Are you afraid of small spaces in the dark?” No. “Will you shave your beard?” Yes. Hired.

Kip started out washing trucks and learning as much as possible. He’s now in his 18th year with the department, working shoulder-to-shoulder with many men and women whose educational journeys look nothing like his own.

“Some of them give me a hard time and joke with me about ‘wasting time’ on a college education,” he says, “but I use my Davidson education every day. My job is 98 percent communication, and Davidson taught me how to read, write and think. I’ve even used Hindi right here in Columbia, South Carolina. You never know what something’s going to prepare you for, and Davidson is still the most important thing that has ever happened in my life.”

Still Rebuilding

For many families affected by last year’s flood, the work of rebuilding continues.

Walt Cartin and his family were not home when they received an early Sunday morning call that their house was filling up with water, and they couldn’t get to the house until later that afternoon. Once the water receded Monday morning, the work began.

“Katherine [Kip] was one of the first volunteers to show up,” he says. “A lot of volunteers came up to me and asked what they could do to help. When something like this is happening, it’s hard to know exactly what you need from each person, but Katherine was different. She was proactive and told us what she was going to do and just started doing it.”

They spent an entire day moving what could be salvaged out to a storage unit, and with Kip’s help, they went through and inventoried all of their possessions. Ultimately, the Cartin home had to be completely demolished and rebuilt. The family should be able to move in next month—13 months after the flood.

“I’m not from Columbia, and I never felt at home in Columbia until I lost my home in Columbia,” says Cartin. “We were surrounded by our church and friends in the neighborhood. It was an oddly good experience, aside from losing all our earthly possessions. We were working all hours of the night with our friends, trying to get people back on their feet.”

Cartin says Kip was the best person to have calling the shots during the flood.

“I wish we had more folks from top colleges who would take on these top safety roles,” he says. “A fire department is one of those things no one realizes the importance of until they need it. Having somebody like Chris at the helm made a difference that day. It was so comforting to me to have someone who is mature, smart and extremely competent managing the fire and rescue response.”

Kip is often called a hero, as are many of the members of the Columbia Fire Department. Just last month, the department received a 2016 Higgins and Langley Memorial Award in Swiftwater Rescue, the premier, internationally-recognized award for excellence in swiftwater and flood rescue.

“The award is a really big deal for us,” says Kip. “But the real hero in all of this is Columbia.”

Davidson Volunteer Week

The volunteer efforts in Columbia last year were extraordinary. Want to make a difference in your community? Be a part of Davidson Volunteer Week, taking place during National Volunteer Week April 23-29, 2017. Last year, more than 26 Davidson chapters worked on 42 projects. Help us top that this year. For more information about Davidson Volunteer Week or the alumni-led engagement initiative DavidsonServes, email alumniservice@davidson.edu or call 704-894-2919. Look for more information from Alumni Relations.

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About Author

Danielle Strickland

Danielle Strickland concentrates on development-related stories, and she enjoys making connections with Davidson’s most engaged alumni and friends. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communication from James Madison University and a master’s in higher education leadership from the University of Arkansas. Thankfully, after seven years working as a Razorback, her red-heavy wardrobe allowed for a smooth transition to life as a Wildcat.

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