Cobb flood victims say they've been left high and dry

·5 min read

Dec. 4—MARIETTA — East Cobbers said they've been "thrown to the wolves" after a "cancer" of a "ticking time bomb" "washed away the masquerade" that Cobb County has an adequate flood prevention plan.

The metaphors — and the pleas, demands, and prayers for help — poured in for nearly two hours at Commissioner Jerica Richardson's latest forum for victims of the Sept. 7 floods that ravaged neighborhoods near the Chattahoochee River.

Residents were given the floor of the Cobb Civic Center to speak freely as Richardson and other officials took notes. They told stories of gaping sinkholes in their backyards, bridges washed out, waist-deep water pouring into their basements, and insurance companies which have shrugged off flood damage claims without paying out a dime.

"The volume and the velocity of the water was overwhelming. It was unprecedented. We have lived in our home since '94, for over 25 years. We're the second owner of that home. There has never, ever been water that high," said Denise Canteli.

"You're our commissioner. We voted for you, to help us. We are your citizens. We are your taxpayers ... please, help us," said an increasingly distraught Zhaojin Song, who ended her remarks in tears. She was one of several residents who said they now panic every time they hear rain on the roof, worrying if it's the first drops of the next deluge.

'This is why people pay taxes'

Cobb County tallied some 250 reports in the aftermath of the sudden storm which dropped over 5 inches of rain in some areas. Though residents asked for a federal disaster declaration, which would have opened up significant aid channels, federal officials deemed the crisis too small to justify one.

A crowdsourced estimate of the damage to residents' homes has so far topped $2.7 million, which Hill Wright, who's been among the most vocal advocates for the flooding victims, said was far from comprehensive.

Thus far, the only assistance has been the availability of low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration (SBA), and several homeowners said Thursday night their applications had already been denied.

At the top of the program, Richardson encouraged homeowners to be frank in their comments, saying, "We're adults here. We can take it."

That call was heeded as many of the participants decried the county government's response. A recurring issue has been questions over ownership of stormwater infrastructure. Residents say given the size of the failed culverts and pipes, it's almost certainly county-owned. But the county has responded, in many cases, that they have no record of the given infrastructure.

"The county basically has just washed their hands of the problem," said homeowner Danny Nodal. "How the hell do you expect the average homeowner in here to understand what a head wall is? ... You cannot expect the average average homeowner to actually handle infrastructure. I mean, this is why people pay taxes."

Others still blamed years of development for drastically changing the area's hydrology and exacerbating runoff problems.

"I want to know why the county wasn't there on day one, the minute one ... We're knocking down all the trees, and we're causing more flooding. Now where does all that water go? Like the proverbial stuff, downhill," said Mariettan Don Barth.

Added another resident, describing the county's position, "One of the things I hear is ... most of us are caught in this proverbial catch-22. We can't do something because that's illegal, but yet it's not our responsibility to fix the problem. Where does that leave all of us?"

'This needs to be the start'

That remained the multi-million-dollar question. Richardson said the county has ruled in favor of homeowners in a few disputes, but is taking them case-by-case. Any large-scale relief has yet to be found.

"This situation was so unique, it literally fell in a gap," she said.

Added state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-east Cobb, "Any other bucket of funds that we can find, believe me, we're looking into it."

Kirkpatrick, however, told the MDJ that despite the inclusion of flood assistance in Cobb County's 2022 legislative priorities, any help from the General Assembly is unlikely.

"I don't think there's a role for the legislature," she said. "I'm going to talk to the governor's office and see if there's any other bucket of money that could result in some individual assistance for the homeowners."

Richardson and her constituents agreed by the end of the night that a similar situation can't happen again, and that the county should step up its investment in stormwater management and infrastructure. That may be possible with the millions in federal coronavirus relief funds the county is currently weighing how to spend, and Richardson is hoping to move toward a major overhaul of the county's disaster response and stormwater departments.

"I know you're talking about increasing staff, but please make sure whatever staff you get understands this is a public service position, not a 'not my job' position," said Jeffrey Stillwell, in one of the biggest applause lines of the night.

Emotions ran high throughout the night, but attendees said afterward they were thankful for, if nothing else, some much-needed catharsis.

"We had asked them to do this, because we didn't feel like the (previous) town hall that was done virtually really did much to get at a lot of the concerns of people you heard tonight," said Wright. "In that sense, it's good, but this can't be the end of it. This needs to be the start of it ... There are people that have got quarter million dollar holes in their back yards, and they can't recover from that."

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