Notre Dame on fire ...
FOREST ACRES, S.C.—Last October a flood here turned festive settings with bright orange pumpkins into apocalyptic scenes featuring thick mud and sewage. Six feet of floodwater invaded homes, playgrounds, and businesses, including Joseph McDougall’s Forest Lake Gardens center in this Columbia suburb on Oct. 4.
McDougall’s landlord, First Citizens Bank, ordered him to close: A formal letter said reopening would not be “practical.” But more than 1,500 local residents (many devastated themselves) signed a petition asking the bank to allow McDougall to remain. Many backed up those words with deeds. Middle- and high-schoolers from First Presbyterian Church shoveled out heavy mud and debris. They and others prayed with, hugged, and assisted McDougall.
Some of them knew McDougall’s story. At age 30 he was a hard-living, homeless high-school dropout. He drifted, but the words of a Scorpions song, “Find your place in the eye of the storm,” prompted him to return to Columbia, the place of his birth. He slept at his brother’s house while he tried various paths. He then entered the garden center business, beginning with just a few plants: “I didn’t know an annual from a perennial.”
That was 14 years ago. McDougall learned from growers the idiosyncrasies of plant life. Forest Lake Gardens became a go-to place for area residents who began to rely on him for growing and planting advice. McDougall gradually added local produce, mulch, straw, and compost, and began selling pots and statuary. But last year, even before the flood’s mud, the plot thickened: Although plants had beautified the previously vacant space, First Citizens wanted to clear the property and convert it to green space.
Then the flood came. The next day, McDougall trudged through muck to survey a wasteland, but community volunteers and church members gave him no time to despair. A scene worthy of It’s a Wonderful Life emerged. Residents invested—not just as consumers but as helpers and missionaries. Within a week and a half, after seeing mud piled high enough to require Bobcat removal, McDougall was able to reopen with a few plants.
The response by Christian neighbors had an effect on McDougall: “It’s been the actions of people that have shown me so much.” Love and support helped him maintain a positive attitude and glean something beautiful from the wreckage: Students at his son’s school used shards of broken pottery to make mosaics. Money from the sale of the mosaics went to other flood victims.
Nevertheless, enthusiastic cleanup efforts and gradual business recovery did not end pressure from First Citizens Bank, which told McDougall to move out “by the end of October,” then “by Christmas,” and then (after a record year selling Christmas trees) “by January.” But just when McDougall thought he might lose the battle, the bank notified him in March that he could purchase the site and own it outright. The bank offered the property, valued at $300,000, for $25,000.
Why? A spokesperson for First Citizens said bank officials decided selling the property to McDougall was the right thing to do. Residents are thrilled. Ann Belding, one of the many who helped McDougall post-flood, says she has seen him and others realize that life can crumble in a moment, but there is “One who, alone, can give us the security we long for.”
McDougall, initially stunned, says he is humbled, grateful, and blessed. He believes God used the flood to change him: “When the rains came down and the flood came up, people responded. … The righteous revealed secrets of the Scriptures.”