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Georgia begins cleaning up $250 million in flood damage

Gov. Sonny Perdue seeks $16.35 million in federal aid to help recover from storms that left nine dead. Crews work on an Atlanta water-treatment plant that added to Chattahoochee River flooding.

September 24, 2009|Richard Fausset

ATLANTA — With floodwaters finally receding, Georgians began the unglamorous task of cleaning up Wednesday, while taking stock of the destruction from an unprecedented autumn deluge that has claimed nine lives and caused an estimated $250 million in damage.

Across the state, roads reopened and residents returned to view the damage to their homes. In the early hours Wednesday, work crews managed to fix much of the damage to a city of Atlanta water-treatment plant that spilled millions of gallons of water into the Chattahoochee River.

State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who made the damage estimate, was among a number of public officials concerned about the financial havoc that could be the legacy of the multiday storms. In a statement, Oxendine, who toured some of the 17 counties in the disaster area, said that most of the affected areas were uninsured, because many homeowners in the inland area do not carry flood insurance.

Georgia's Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue has asked President Obama to issue a federal emergency declaration for the area. He has also requested $16.35 million in federal assistance.

Obama had not issued the order as of Wednesday afternoon, but the president reportedly discussed the flooding with Perdue in a phone call Tuesday evening. The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday pledging federal relief.

In Greater Atlanta, the local river system had been a sort of famous afterthought. Atlanta earned its initial fortunes in the 19th century as a railroad hub, and for many Atlantans, the Chattahoochee, which runs southwestward through the metro region, has typically been out of sight -- and out of mind.

"People usually see the river from a car window when they're rushing over a freeway," said Sally Bethea, head of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group. "And usually, [the water] stays in place. So I think it's pretty stunning for people to see the river widen to a half a mile, and the creeks widen, and all of this raging water."

Bethea blamed the flooding in part on rampant development and paving that prevent the earth from soaking up rain, instead sending it shooting into river basins.

But that development, until recently, has also helped create a vibrant economy here. That was what attracted Johnnie Chavours, 41, to the area in May after she lost her job in Michigan. On Wednesday, she and her two boys, ages 11 and 14, were in a shelter in suburban Cobb County. Chavours said that she was evacuated from her second-story apartment in the Lithia Springs area when the water crept over her balcony.

She called the experience "devastating" -- and a surprise. When she moved south, her boys, who had seen Hurricane Katrina footage, asked, "Mom, do they have hurricanes there?"

"I just said, 'No, no -- you don't have that in Atlanta,' " she said.

The storms, which pounded the region for days, had largely abated for a second straight day Wednesday. But Alex Sosnowski, a meteorologist for AccuWeather.com, said that high humidity and Gulf of Mexico moisture remained as "potential fuel for heavy rain and new flooding problems" by this weekend.

The rains have helped in one respect: by adding water to Lake Lanier, the source of much of the region's drinking water. During a three-year drought that was declared over in March, lake levels reached record lows. The recent rains added more than 3 feet to the water level of the 38,000-acre lake, said Robert G. Holland, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

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