Federal Disaster Relief Money Headed to Georgia, Including Flood Buy-Out Money for Cobb, Douglas Counties

1:04 AM, Jul 31, 2010   |    comments
One of the homes in Austell, GA, ten months after the Sept., 2009 floods destroyed it.
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AUSTELL, Ga. -- More than ten months after the September floods in metro Atlanta, some disaster relief money is on the way to Georgia from Washington.

President Barack Obama on Friday signed the supplemental appropriations that Congress approved, which will provide more than $33 million for Georgia disaster relief.

Most of that money will go to Cobb County and Douglas County.

The portion for Cobb and Douglas Counties will go toward buying 120 properties from private owners whose homes were destroyed and who have already been approved for the buy-outs but were just waiting for this appropriation.

Their homes are just a fraction of the homes that the September, 2009 floods destroyed or damaged.

"We can go forward, which is good news," said the Mayor of Austell, in Cobb County, Joe Jerkins.

The 21 inches of rain swelled Sweetwater Creek in Austell to an unprecedented 14 feet above the 100-year flood plain, catching homeowners and their insurance companies by surprise. No one thought the creek could ever rise that high; everyone there thought they'd always be high and dry.

The worst flood until then was in 2005, when Sweetwater Creek rose 4 1/2 feet above the 100-year flood plain.

The money released Friday will allow the city of Austell and other local governments in Cobb and Douglas Counties to raze the flood-wrecked properties right down to the soil.

The local governments will then own the land, and no one else will be allowed to build on those flood plain properties ever again; they will be preserved as green space and flood buffers.

23 of the 120 properties are in Austell.

"It's good that we can get some help," said Austell Homeowner Don Mitchell.

Mitchell has lived on the same street since the 1950s. His home is just a few feet outside of and above Sweetwater Creek's 100-year flood plain, so -- no buy-out for him.

The flood waters rushed into the first floor of his home, even though his home's first floor is three to four feet above the terrain. He took out a loan to repair his home.

Mitchell has watched his neighbors just down the hill within the 100-year flood plain, whose homes were destroyed, struggle the past ten months. FEMA approved them for the buy-outs, but while they've waited for the money they've had to continue paying their mortgages; financially trapped, they've been paying on condemned and abandoned homes instead of being able to buy homes outside of the flood plain.  Others just walked away and let the mortgage holders have them. 

"Snakes, rodents have been our biggest problem over here, along with scavengers," Mitchell said of the neighborhood. What's left of the collapsing, mildewed, mud-caked and weed-infested houses makes the subdivision appear sadly, scarily post-apocalyptic, which, arguably, it is.

"It's good that we can get some help for those that are very desperate... those people don't have any money to go anywhere else," Mitchell said.

Even though 23 houses in Austell were approved for the federal buy-out, a total of 230 Austell homeowners applied for the buy-out. FEMA decided who met the criteria.

"We've got so many others [wrecked and abandoned homes] just sitting there," said Austell Mayor Joe Jerkins Friday evening. "We've still got lots of problems. People who have walked off and left, besides these 23."

In all, in Austell the floods damaged or destroyed 700 houses, out of a total of around 2,500 houses in the entire city.

Jerkins said it will take weeks before the bulldozers start clearing the 23 properties -- like closing on a new house, he said, there's so much paperwork to complete first.

"I'm glad it's okayed. It's very important for us to get moving on it. But it's going to take time to do all this."

The federal money will pay for 75 percent of the purchase prices; the state will pay 10 percent, and local governments will pay 15 percent. Jerkins said Austell has its share of the money ready to go.

"We can go forward with our part, but we didn't want to go forward," Jerkins said, "until we made sure the [other] money was available."

"These funds could not come quickly enough," said Rep. David Scott, (D), Georgia 13th District; the district includes not only Austell, but large areas of Cobb and Douglas Counties.

"The folks in Cobb and Douglas Counties need some resolution to their situation in order to get on with rebuilding their lives. They have, unfortunately, had to wait too long to know if their damaged properties will be bought out," Scott said, referring to delays in Congress that held up the money, frustrating him and his constituents.

"It's been kind of tough," Don Mitchell said. "I hope that [the money] will come on down in a timely basis. Because you know how the government is. They get a lot of money, they'll choke-hold it until they finally have to turn it loose. But I hope they'll go ahead and take care of these people around town."

Mitchell said that last September, someone from FEMA told him that it would take a year before the mess is cleaned up.

That was one government man, he said, who got it just about right.  

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