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2018 in South Carolina: Tragedy, floods, more nuclear money

December 29, 2018
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FILE - In this April 16, 2018, file photo, a guard tower stands above the Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Bishopville, S.C., the morning after seven inmates were killed amid fighting among prisoners. This was one of the top stories in South Carolina in 2018. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The year ends in South Carolina with hundreds of people rebuilding homes flooded for the second time in three years and hundreds of thousands of people still paying for nuclear reactors that never generated power.

It was also a year of change in the state. Henry McMaster finally won the election he has wanted for decades. A Democrat flipped a Republican seat in the U.S. House. And an investigation into corruption at the Statehouse ended with no lawmaker yet to spend a night in jail.

There were tragedies too. Seven prisoners dead in a riot. Two ambushes on police officers by men with sparse criminal records. Two women, ordered to get mental health treatment, drowning in a locked police van as South Carolina flooded again.

Here are the top stories from South Carolina in 2018:

NUCLEAR NIGHTMARE

It is a top story this year, it was a top story in 2017 and chances are the two nuclear reactors abandoned during construction will continue to make headlines in 2019.

This year closes with state regulators approving reduced electric rates for South Carolina Electric & Gas customers, although they will still pay about $80 a year for the next 20 years for construction costs of the reactors that never generated a watt of power. But instead of parent company SCANA Corp., the checks will likely be written to Virginia’s Dominion Energy after the Public Service Commission approved a merger proposal.

As far as next year’s headlines? A criminal investigation into SCE&G executives and others continues and attention will also turn to Santee Cooper, the state-owned utility that owned 45 percent of the project and is now $8 billion in debt.

HURRICANE FLORENCE

For the third time in four years, South Carolina saw the kind of flooding that should be about a 1 in 1,000 shot in any year. In September 2018, it was Hurricane Florence, which dumped 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 centimeters) of rain, sending rivers to record stages in the northeast part of the state.

The flooding was almost identical to October 2016′s Hurricane Matthew, with floodwaters reaching just a little higher.

Eight people died, including two mental patients locked in a police van while being driven to ordered treatment. Authorities say the two deputies in the van drove around barricades blocking flooded highways and the van overturned in water. They survived. A prosecutor is reviewing whether they should face charges.

One bit of good news: Gov. McMaster original suggested Florence would be a billion-dollar storm in South Carolina. But by November, damage estimates in the state were down to $607 million.

PRISON RIOT

On April 15, a gang fight over territory led to the death of seven inmates, all stabbed or slashed during a riot at maximum security Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, authorities said.

The investigation into the killings continues, and no one has been charged. The riot marked the end of a violent 16 months, where 20 inmates were killed by fellow prisoners, included four strangled one-by-one in a cell in 2017. The two inmates charged in that case are awaiting trial.

POLICE AMBUSHES

Two separate ambushes on police killed three officers and wounded eight others. Both were committed by men with sparse criminal records, authorities said.

In York County, Christian McCall’s wife called 911 on Jan. 16 after he beat her. McCall went into the woods and ambushed officers as they looked for him, killing York County Sheriff’s Det. Mike Doty and hurting three others. McCall, 47, pleaded guilty in May and was sentenced to life in prison.

In Florence County, authorities said Frederick Hopkins opened fire on three deputies coming to question his son about a possible sex crime and kept shooting as officers tried to rescue them on Oct. 3. Florence Police Sgt. Terrence Carraway and Florence County Sheriff’s Investigator Farrah Turner were killed and five others hurt.

Hopkins, 74, is awaiting trial.

MCMASTER WINS

For four decades, Henry McMaster has wanted to win a governor’s race in South Carolina. In November, the Republican finally did it, thanks in part to a risky but calculated move in Jan. 27, 2016.

McMaster endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential bid that night. He was the first statewide office holder to back him. In June, with McMaster facing a GOP primary runoff against a young, rich newcomer in John Warren, Trump returned the favor and campaigned with the lifelong Republican.

McMaster would then easily beat Democratic state Rep. James Smith for a full term.

FLIP IT BLUE

The biggest political surprise in South Carolina came in the 1st District U.S. House race, where Joe Cunningham became the first Democrat to take a congressional seat back from Republicans since 1986.

Cunningham defeated Republican state Rep. Katie Arrington, who had beaten incumbent U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford in the Republican primary in the coastal district stretching from Charleston to Hilton Head Island.

Cunningham used charm, money (he raised nearly $2 million) and Arrington’s switch on off-shore drilling to pull off the upset .

TRUMP TARIFFS

South Carolina companies that depend on international trade continue to warn Trump and his administration that their tariffs could hurt them.

Automakers like BMW and Volvo said they are especially vulnerable to trade taxes, although neither manufacturer has taken drastic steps yet.

STATEHOUSE CORRPUTION

A two-year grand jury investigation into corruption at the South Carolina Statehouse ended this year with four Republican lawmakers pleading guilty and a guilty verdict against a fifth

The four who pleaded guilty received probation. Former state Rep. Jim Harrison was found guilty of perjury and misconduct and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. But a judge is allowing him to remain free on bond while he appeals the conviction.

Solicitor David Pascoe said the lawmakers and others converted campaign money for personal use and lobbied illegally.

One more former lawmaker, Rep. Tracy Edge from Myrtle Beach, is awaiting trial.

TRAIN WRECK

Two Amtrak crew members were killed and more than 100 passengers hurt on Feb. 4 when their passenger train was diverted on to a side track and slammed into a parked locomotive, authorities said.

Work was being done on the track around Cayce to install a safety system to prevent trains from barreling down side tracks when the wreck happened, officials said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the crash.

ALMOST MEGA BILLIONS

Sometime in late October, someone bought a lottery ticket that could be worth more than $1.5 billion at the KC Mart in Simpsonville.

But the owner of that Mega Millions winning ticket from the Oct. 23 drawing has not come forward to claim the $1.537 billion prize over 30 years or the $878 million lump sum payment.

The winner has until April to claim the prize. And while the South Carolina lottery has to announce when the jackpot is claimed, it has no plans to release the name of the winner if the person wants to stay anonymous.

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