A few days after the flood’s start, Governor Sonny Purdue declared a state of emergency for 17 counties including Rockdale, which opened the door for federal help.
Rockdale was declared a federal disaster area for Individual and Public Assistance. With Public Assistance, state, county and municipal governments, and certain private non-profit organizations, could be reimbursed for things such as debris removal, infrastructure and public facility repair.
With Individual Assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency made grants for up to $30,300 to people in the 17 counties for disaster-related losses. Yet, the assistance did not cover damage to a person’s home or contents. Instead, it could be used for temporary housing costs, rental assistance and to make a home livable, safe and comply with local building codes.
Also, many homeowners quickly discovered flood damage is not covered by most owners’ insurance policies.
According to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, by early October 2009 about 500 people statewide had been moved from emergency shelters to long-term housing. More than 19,600 businesses and households in the 17 counties registered with FEMA, and the agency granted more than $35 million in those counties.
In Rockdale, about $562,800 has been paid to 252 applicants, most of which was for rental assistance and home repairs.
With Public Assistance, 17 claims were filed from state, county, city and other entities for a total of $375,167, of which $179,373 has been cleared for payment. Four claims did not meet the reimbursement threshold for various reasons, said GEMA spokesperson Buzz Weiss. FEMA reimburses Public Assistance claims at 75 percent and the state at 10 percent.
"The remaining is for the local folks to cover" Weiss said. "At this point we have a situation where the county has done what it needs to do, we’ve done what we need to do, FEMA has done what it needs to do, and now we’re waiting on Congress."
The U.S. Congress still must appropriate money to the federal Disaster Relief Fund. Then, it will filter down to the government agencies. The fund helps people and communities severely impacted by emergencies and natural disasters. Generally, it is funded at a level considered for "normal" disasters, in which the fund pays out less than $500 million. If more is needed, it is infused through emergency supplemental appropriations.
Lt. Myra Pearrell, Deputy Director of the Conyers-Rockdale Emergency Management Agency, said most of their claims from damage assessments were done by the end of 2009 and sent to FEMA. It is now processing them, she said.
She is not sure how many claims were made because each department handled their own, but it did not total in the millions of dollars as with other counties. The Conyers-Rockdale Emergency Management Agency submitted claims for things such as overtime use of county equipment, purchasing extra life jackets and workers’ meals.
Rockdale County’s General Services and Engineering department submitted estimates of about $137,200 in damages to the structures around the Gees Mill and Lake Capri bridges, said GS&E Deputy Director Miguel Valentin. The structures themselves were found to be safe, but Gees Mill bridge abutments had scouring damages and the Lake Capri bridge spillway and road needed some repairs.
Pearrell credits FEMA and GEMA’s swift responsiveness as being crucial to helping local officials assist residents more expediently.
"One thing I was very impressed with was how well the plan fell into place," Pearrell said. "People worked long days. We had people who came in and didn’t leave until that task was filled. All the agencies worked well together."
The City of Conyers asked to be reimbursed for eight projects, seven of which were at the Georgia International Horse Park. Six of those projects already have been reimbursed because they were small. Park trails were temporarily washed out; the Nature Center’s viewing platform was completely under water; receding water left tons of sand and rushing water completely reshaped riverbank and cut deep ruts into the Glen, which is in a floodplain, and left 360 cubic yards of vegetative debris.
Park Director Jennifer Bexley said enough sand was left to fill 700 dump trucks. The City worked closely with FEMA and GEMA because debris had to be dumped at a licensed facility. Eventually the city had a company sift it and put around the horse arenas, with the rest stockpiled for future use. The project cost $46,000.
In all her years of working at the Park, Bexley said she never saw water rising that fast in the Glen before, or since, last September. One of her lasting memories from then was anxiously watching floodwaters edge towards a power transformer near the Glen. She and her staff returned to the Glen throughout the night to check on the water levels. The park’s facility manager Lonnie Abercrombie was on vacation in Idaho at the time, but came back as soon as he could.
"It’s the helplessness that I remember," said Bexley. "There was nothing anybody could do."
"We don’t do helplessness very well," said Abercrombie. "In our business, we have so many factors at any given time, we’ve grown accustomed to plan B, plan C, go. You’re always ready for something to change. But for that – there’s no plan B, C, or D. You have no way to control or be ready for anything."
Progress Slowly but Surely
For local citizens, some are still in limbo while others have begun to rebound.
In the Lake Capri subdivision, one of Rockdale’s neighborhoods hardest hit by floodwaters, residents said they are frustrated because they are still waiting for government officials to make repairs, address abandoned homes and help them better prepare to avoid future flood damage.
The county recently approved a $130,050 bid to repair the road and the spillway between Lakes Capri and Sorrento. The delayed repairs were mainly due to the county researching whether Rockdale or the community association owns the dam under the bridge, according to Miguel Valentin, interim director of Rockdale’s General Services and Engineering department The bridge and roadway is Rockdale’s. FEMA originally refused to reimburse the county for the repairs because it considered it private property.
Although the question is not settled, the county decided to go ahead and begin repairs. The preconstruction meeting starts Wednesday and work on the bridge should start some time within the next two weeks, said Valentin.
Homeowners Association President Missy Jarrell said early this year a county engineer came to answer residents’ questions and Chairman Richard Oden also made a surprise visit to a meeting to respond to a letter residents wrote.
"There were several residents who filed claims in December (2009), just making the deadline," Valentin said. Some were confused about the filing deadline for individual versus public claims, he said.
Asher said Rockdale intends to buy out three houses beyond repair – two in Lake Capri and one just below High Roc. The homes will be demolished and land turned into greenspace with no future building allowed. However, because there is no money yet in the Disaster Relief Fund, they are on hold, Asher said.
Resident Grady Potts wanted to have his home purchased and demolished but did not meet the qualifications because he did not have flood insurance and documentation of the number of times he’d been flooded. His next door neighbor’s house did, though. The house on the other side has been abandoned, said Potts, and debris from flood damage is still piled up in the back yard.
"To me looks like it needs to be condemned," he said.
The GS&E department’s storm water division also has created a brochure it distributes three to four times a year on topics such as what not to touch during floods.
"Unfortunately, the general public still does not have a good appreciation of how fast waters can rise or they can have their cars washed right off the road," Valentin said.
Next Week: Future Plans