It's Wednesday evening in the Hanover West neighborhood near Buckhead, and the clean-up from the unprecedented storms and floods that whacked metro Atlanta on Sept. 21 and 22 has winded down for the evening. Concerned neighbors mill from house to house, deliver pizzas and supplies, and nurse well-earned beers next to Dumpsters filled with water-logged dry wall and insulation.
Less than four miles away in the historically black Lincoln Homes subdivision, efforts to make sense of the destruction have only just begun. Homeowners stack soggy possessions in front yards and mop up bathrooms covered in pungent mud left from the deluge. Residents toiling into the night tell neighbors leaving to bunk with family members that they'll look after their homes. Compared to Hanover West, where the flood was met with a well-organized communal response, the mood in Lincoln Homes is rife with uncertainty and laden with apprehension as to when things could get back to normal.
While Cobb, Douglas, Paulding and Gwinnett counties saw the brunt of the destruction from the Atlanta floods, in the city proper, northwest Atlanta, which includes the Chattahoochee River and the streams and creeks that feed into and from it, was hardest hit. The destruction wasn't as great as in Cobb's Austell, where an estimated 2,000 people were left homeless, or in the four suburban counties where 10 people were killed in flood-related incidents, including 2-year-old Preston Slade Crawford, who was pulled from his father's arms as water overtook their Carroll County mobile home.
Still, Atlanta Fire and Rescue estimates the floods caused $61 million in damages to parks and city-owned property and severely impacted 478 homes — the majority of which were located just outside Buckhead and in Lincoln Homes.
Councilwoman Felicia Moore, whose diverse district includes both neighborhoods, says she's never seen anything like last week's floods. Moore spent Wednesday and Thursday in Lincoln Homes knocking on doors, handing out bottled water, and urging residents living on low or fixed incomes to part with belongings now covered in a toxic cocktail of water, untreated sewage and polluted runoff.
"The people who used to get [a little] water got more than they ever got," Moore says. "And the people who never got [flooded] got swept into it."
When the flood began, real estate developer Paisley Boney cautiously watched Peachtree Creek behind his Cape Cod-style two-story home in Hanover West rise to become a literal river. By the time water hit his back door, his basement was already flooded. The next morning, water from the creek and overflowing sewers hit the recently renovated home from both directions, filling it with 3 feet of contaminated water.
By Wednesday evening, the first floor of Boney's house had already been gutted, leaving only the frames. Outside, a massive tree trunk that floated from the creek and bobbed over delicate lawn lamps finally came to rest next to his home. Inside, one can see through nearly all the now-skeletal rooms. The professional-looking kitchen had been stripped. Sections of the walls that remain already show mold sprouts.
"The stuff is like E. coli city," Boney says, pointing to the fungus. "Black mold. You've got to rip all that crap out. You don't want to come in and fix all this stuff, and then a year from now you've got a real health hazard."
What Boney says will help him and his wife, Mary Claire, overcome the inevitable frustrations — four to six months of renovations, flood insurance claims, etc. — is that they are fortunate. Unlike the now vacated ranch homes near the neighborhood entrance — owned mostly by young couples with young children who might lack a financial cushion, Boney says — he and his wife were able to carry valuables and furniture to higher ground on their home's second floor. They can sleep and live upstairs as they "put Humpty Dumpty back together again," he says.
In Lincoln Homes, Roosevelt Ogburn, 55, works until midnight scrubbing walls with bleach and helping his next-door neighbors. Mattresses heavy with water and contaminated with sewage released from the nearby — and also flooded — R.M. Clayton wastewater treatment plant are left to dry on top of bushes. Dressers, couches, TVs and clothes once submerged are stacked in the driveway. Valuables that could be salvaged — boxes filled with photos, soggy address books, a framed poster of a young Michael Jackson — are arranged near the house.
Around 11 p.m. Monday and throughout Tuesday, Ogburn says, Proctor Creek began to rise and rise, eventually reaching his back door, stretching past the front of his family's home, and extending down the street. Water that Ogburn describes as "brown, greasy-looking and contaminated" seeped into the ranch-style house, filled the walls, and moved the stove, refrigerator and other heavy possessions. Next-door neighbors saw cars submerged and water levels of up to 4 feet inside.
The family doesn't have flood insurance nor the money to immediately replace everything, Ogburn says. Until the home is repaired, they'll make do on what they have and rely on the help of family members and friends and whatever assistance is available. Pretty much everything's getting thrown out.
"I know people wanna hold on to stuff because they wanna save [money]," Ogburn says. "But you yourself is more valuable than some materials you want to keep. Me personally, I'll get in debt and get me a bedroom suite for $75 before I get something that'll get me a $75,000 medical bill."
None of the six families in Hanover West and Lincoln Homes who were interviewed by CL say they'll leave their homes. For some, it would be illogical. Jessie and Ruby Samples, next-door neighbors to the Ogburns who've lived in Lincoln Homes for 40 years, paid off the mortgage on their home long ago.
"Most people who I've talked with would rather invest $5,000 to $10,000 to restore their home than start all over again," the Samples' daughter, Anita Ferguson, says as she takes a break from scrubbing walls with bleach. Like Ogburn and other residents, the Samples didn't have flood insurance. The Ruckers, who live next door to the Ogburns, once had insurance but stopped buying it because prices escalated and past floods never caused much damage.
After the water levels returned to normal, the drive-by voyeurs disappeared and the news helicopters stopped whirling overhead, residents say. Contractors looking for work continued to idle by. And residents acknowledge they could use — if not afford — a helping hand.
"Don't doubt for a minute that we're all down and out," Ferguson says. "You feel a little hurt, because there are so many things you've accumulated over your lifetime ... gone. Some things you can't replace. But we're thankful."
Anita's husband Renaldo chimes in. "We're gonna get through it. When a crisis comes, people come together. And we're gonna come out better than before."
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