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Flood Fills Georgia City With Discontent : Disaster: Many black residents of Albany charge that water was diverted into their neighborhoods. Officials say no one could control the deluge.

August 25, 1994|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALBANY, Ga. — South-central Albany is a ghost town. Who knows where the people have gone, but their houses sit abandoned. For mile after desolate mile, the homes squat beneath a merciless sun, front doors gaping. Some have tumbled down, half-swallowed by gigantic sinkholes.

Seven weeks after floods ravaged southwest Georgia and parts of Alabama and Florida, the herculean task of rebuilding in this, the hardest hit section of the hardest hit town, has hardly begun.

But as other communities along the Flint, Ocmulgee and Chattahoochee rivers pull together in the wake of what is being called Georgia's worst natural disaster, in Albany the legacy of racial separation and distrust has further torn people apart.

Many in the black community allege that city and county officials deliberately diverted floodwater to their neighborhoods in order to save northern areas where affluent white people live. Local officials strongly deny this. But in an African American community molded by a history of powerlessness and perceived neglect, the rumors spread with the relentlessness of the floodwater.

"Immediately after the flood that's all people were talking about as they stood in lines," said Mary Young-Cummings, a lawyer and former state legislator who lost her home in the flood.

"What we want to know is, was the water manipulated in such a way that the more affluent neighborhoods were spared devastation to the detriment of the black community?" she said. "They got flooding, but we got devastated. And we got miles and miles and miles of devastation."

The U.S. Justice Department has launched an investigation of the way the flood was handled at the request of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has visited Albany twice to hear citizen concerns. Last weekend, during his most recent visit, state and local police provided unusually heavy protection because of high racial tension and alleged death threats.

Overall, more than 5,000 families in the county were displaced by the flood, say officials, who predict the damage in the county will surpass $500 million.

A Georgia State University economist estimated last week that the flood would have a $1-billion impact in the state overall, including $500 million in damage to uninsured property and $200 million in agricultural losses. Throughout the region, a number of small towns that already were struggling to survive were nearly wiped off the map. In Montezuma, for example, virtually the entire downtown area--68 businesses--was under 10 feet of water at one point. Town officials there optimistically predict all but one or two businesses will reopen.

But in Albany, a city of 80,000 people, the devastation in the south-central section is so widespread that Young-Cummings says she fears that many residents will not resettle there. That could lead to a weakening of black voting strength in a city where blacks make up a majority of the population (57% officially) but have only this year won a majority of the seats on the city commission.

While white areas of Albany also received heavy flood damage, Mayor Paul Keenan acknowledges that the lower-lying African American section of town received the greater residential damage. He insisted, though, that this was the result of geography and nature. "There was no manipulation of water," he said. "You don't manipulate that kind of flood."

He cites a state report issued last week that showed that dams on Lake Chehaw and Lake Blackshear were too small to control all the water that was dumped on the area last month by Tropical Storm Alberto.

But many south side residents aren't satisfied. Young-Cummings charged that the report merely "rubber-stamped" conclusions that already had been reached by local officials, alleging that the first draft of the study was reviewed by the officials and by executives of the power companies that own the dams.

South side residents are particularly suspicious because their area was flooded on a sunshiny day, they say, two days before the Flint River actually overflowed its banks. The water burst with explosive force from underground, through storm drains and the sewer system. Residents talk of seeing manhole covers lifted 15 feet in the air by the force of the water.

"There was no time for me to get anything out of my house," said Myra Hosely, who has been living with relatives since her home was flooded and all of her possessions destroyed.

Officials say water rose from the storm drains because the waste-water system was overwhelmed by all the water. "The flood was not controlled, and no one was capable of controlling the flood," said the report released last week. "The operation of the dams was completely proper, logical and responsible."

Officials acknowledge that water was pumped out of north Albany after that area flooded, but they say the water was pumped to a drainage basin west of the city and away from the flooded area.

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