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After the Deluge
The Rockdale Floods, one year later (Part I)
Home but not back to normal: Charlie Grimes stands in his repaired house on Lake Sorrento Drive. Most of the furniture and personal items inside were destroyed or damaged. - photo by Robert Porter

When it rains, Charlie Grimes' wife cries. A downpour sends her into a panic. Nearly a year later the elderly Lake Capri Estates couple is still recovering from last September’s historic floods where they lost nearly everything — their home, possessions, two vehicles, and irreplaceable mementoes.

"We had to gut the whole thing," Grimes said solemnly about the 2,500-square-foot brick, ranch-style home they lived in for 23 years. "We lost stuff we’ll never get back. It’s been an ordeal."

Beginning around September 18, 2009, memories of Georgia’s recent drought were quickly erased by surging floodwaters in north Georgia and the Atlanta metro area. Within four days officials estimate about 20 inches of rain fell. At times, several inches fell within hours.

Today, as the record-breaking floods approach a one-year anniversary, local residents and officials continue working to rebuild and sort things out, while counting their blessings things were not worse.

Last fall’s floods were mainly due to incessant rain for days, causing waterlogged soil, loosened tree roots and unusually high bodies of water. For instance, Honey Creek and the Yellow River near Conyers easily surpassed their banks. The river broke its crest level record of 16.36 feet in July 2005 to just over 22 feet last September, according to the National Weather Service’s Southern Region Headquarters.

Ten deaths were blamed on the floods. State insurance officials estimated damages at several hundred million dollars. More than 200 residents in the county had to be evacuated.

While Rockdale did not see the same level of damage as other metro area counties, for the lives that were affected, the waters wreaked unforgettable damage.

"The floods were so far off the charts it was an anomaly," said Kent Asher, Rockdale’s GIS and floodplains manager. He said he is glad his mapping was accurate because it helped prevent fatalities and major damage. He does not intend to make any major post-flood map adjustments because it is unnecessary, he said.

"We were able to be pro-active and get right out to work and help people," Asher said. "Other counties wish they could say that."


Neighbors Band Together

No matter their thoughts about the government’s response, one thing Lake Capri residents won’t soon forget is how their neighbors supported one another.

The community’s clubhouse, located on higher ground, became the command center where information, clothing, food, household items and emergency services were compiled and distributed. For instance, on the first day the clubhouse was open, association meeting minutes show 75-100 residents, firefighters, EMT workers and sheriff’s personnel were fed. On the second day, Lithonia First United Methodist Church brought a pick-up truck loaded with food.

Lists were created of which families needed what, and who was going to hotels and who was headed to extended families’ homes. Rockdale Emergency Relief was key in finding residents temporary shelter within minutes of getting the call for help.

Jarrell said they plan to use the clubhouse in a similar way for future natural disasters.

Her family has lived on four acres in Lake Capri for 13 years. "It’s in a 500-year flood plain behind the house, so we got flood insurance," she said. "We later learned (the floodplain) comes to the corner of our house."

She said some neighbors cancelled their insurance because they could not afford it or had not dealt with any major floods while living there.

"We’d seen the river come up all the time but not to a point where it’s dangerous," Jarrell said. "We hadn’t even thought it a possibility."

Then on Sept. 21, 2009 that changed.

"It came as a wall of water honestly," Jarrell recalled. "It flowed and flowed. It got up to four and a half feet in my living area… It was the most incredible experience of my life, and hopefully I’ll never experience that again."

She credited emergency officials for a quick and orderly evacuation. For hours they helped residents move belongings and pets by boat. "If anything, they overdid it because they wanted everyone to be safe," Jarrell said.

Ted and Mary Boysworth live on the lake in a floodplain and lost both their cars, though one was insured. They are still repairing their home mostly using their own money. They lived in a hotel with their pets until a week before Christmas.

"When we came back it didn’t feel like home," Ted said. "It was like, ‘Where are we?’ It was hard to get things in motion. I didn’t know where to start."

They considered moving, but neighbors like Jarrell stepped in to help. "If we hadn’t had that, we wouldn’t have stayed," Mary said. "But we have a great community here.

They had partial flood insurance on their second mortgage and FEMA granted them $26,000, but they are in debt $10,000. Their home value dropped to $80,000, Ted said, which is lower than their mortgage. They still want FEMA to help them replace a car and their heating and air system.

Charlie Grimes and his wife also live in the floodplains two doors from the Boysworths. They were not as lucky. They had no flood insurance. It was all Charlie could think about as he watched his house disappear under the waters.

"If we could’ve had a couple hours notice we could’ve saved some things," he said. They were evacuated to a hotel and then rental.

Around February, the Grimes returned to Lake Capri to rebuild. They filled five dumpsters. Eventually they replaced furniture through thrift stores and donations from friends like the Boysworths. Still, Charlie lost his beloved Elvis impersonator wardrobe, equipment and coin-covered car.

"We still have a few odds and ends to do, but it’s just minor stuff considering," he said.

Grady and Gail Potts are upset because they live between two of the abandoned homes and want the county to deal with them. He often mows the yard of one to keep things in check. The other is slated to be torn down and turned into green space next week.

For 33 years they lived on Riviera Drive until they lost everything in their basement to 16 inches of water and were evacuated for about a month. They also had no flood insurance, so Grady did the repair work himself with the help of a small FEMA grant. Before, the floodplain map in their area showed it behind their house. Today, it covers half their house. So now they have flood insurance.

"It’s for my own comfort," Grady said. "I worked on this house every day I had off from before it got daylight to before it got dark."

He wants advice from the county about how to protect his home, which is 600 feet from the river, because the bank is so eroded. He is not satisfied with conversations with county officials where he felt his suggestions of building a berm, dredging the river or building up the banks were shot down.

"What can I do to protect my house in case this happens again?" Grady said. "All they tell me is what I can’t do."


Next week: Coordinating Assistance – FEMA, Rockdale County, and Conyers