A washed out bridge is shown Sept. 21, 2009, in Douglasville, Ga. Heavy rain caused flooding in and around the Atlanta area.
A series of torrential downpours in the Atlanta metro area in late September caused what U.S. Geological Survey experts deemed a 500-year flood, leaving 10 people dead and 20 counties in Georgia disaster areas. The rain also triggered extensive flooding throughout Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. Flooding in Atlanta peaked on Sept. 21, after more than 20 in. of rain fell overnight.
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue quickly declared a state of emergency in 17 Georgia counties, clearing the way for the massive deployment of state personnel and equipment. President Barack Obama followed suit in similar rapid manner, issuing a Federal Disaster Declaration for individual assistance to aid residents of the 14 counties that were hardest hit: Carroll, Catoosa, Chattooga, Cherokee, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Newton, Paulding, Rockdale, Stephens and Walker.
The Georgia Emergency Management Agency coordinated the state’s recovery effort with local, state, federal and volunteer counterparts.
“Damage assessment teams are continuing to work with local authorities in all affected areas of the state to assess losses,” Georgia Emergency Management Agency Director Charley English told reporters in the days following the flood.
With reports of closed highways, roads, bridges, schools and businesses, and as many as 20,000 homes and other structures that have suffered major damage, Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine adjusted his initial estimate of flood-related insurance claims, doubling the total to as much as $500 million. However, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, isn’t happy with even the revised numbers. She predicted to presidential officials that damage will reach $1 billion, pointing out that repairing the R.M. Clayton sewage treatment plant on the Chattahoochee River could cost $100 million alone.
While stating its own prediction of $2 billion in damages, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) didn’t waste time mobilizing. In a statement, GDOT said, “We are working with federal agencies, state agencies, city and county governments and our many partners to ensure that our interstates and roads are safe for travel.”
To that end, more than 550 GDOT employees have been working exclusively on flood recovery and storm cleanup; 11 bridge inspection teams and two dive teams were deployed for underwater inspection to ensure the safety of bridges; eight preliminary damage assessment teams have been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency; 511 operators have been working around the clock and seven media liaisons were diligently providing hourly updates on road closures and openings.
Mike Lehner, Cobb County DOT senior project manager, said many employees vowed not to leave their job duties until the roads were open. Of the approximately half dozen locations where residents were stranded because of flooded roads, he said most were opened within 36 hours. As of Sept. 30, all Georgia interstates, including I-285 and I-20, had been inspected and reopened. Only two bridges and five state roads remained closed. Some streets remain closed, Lehner explained, because local reservoirs can’t keep up with flood waters that are “holding steady.”
Even usually small streams can completely wash out roads. In northeast Cobb County, GDOT contracted with C.W. Matthews Contracting out of Marietta, Ga., to address one residential road the flood had ravaged.
Crews installed a triple-barrel 72-in. (183 cm)-diameter, 70-ft. (21 m)-long reinforced concrete pipe system to accommodate the flow of a stream that washed out the only road into the Waterford subdivision, as well as most of the utilities that serve the 40 homes on Netherstone Drive.
After a day to clean out debris, old pavement, piping and trees, crews set up a temporary roadway within 36 hours after the water receded. Jay Mayo, vice president of C.W. Matthews, reported that they relied on ALL Crane Rental of Georgia in Austell for an 80-ton (72.5 t) Link-Belt crane to help off-load and set up pipe. Other equipment on the job included Cat 330DL and 321 LCR excavators, a Cat D4XL dozer, a Cat IT38G tool carrier and a Cat CS563E compactor.
The challenge, Mayo said, was replacing the utilities that had been washed away. Fortunately, however, there was a dual power line system to the inaccessible section of the neighborhood, so power was switched over to all but one of the 40 homes.
Because C.W. Matthews is doing virtually all the work on the project, including final paving but excluding storm drain work, crews were on the job site for 56 straight hours, transitioning into a sun-up-to-sun-down routine once traffic was flowing.
“Our guys like this kind of work because it’s a challenge where we can step up and see how quickly we can get emergency projects like this completed to help folks out,” Mayo said proudly. “This is one of four emergency road repairs we’re doing for the Cobb County DOT.”
There are 12 GDOT contracts for cleanup, storm drain repair and bridge repair. Lehner explained that the contracts are pre-arranged. Contractors submit sealed bids with price schedules for work. Items are categorized into different groups, such as paving, signal work, etc. GDOT employees evaluate the unit prices and award supplemental contracts based on low bids.
“We put quantities to their unit prices,” he said.
When an emergency occurs, they call contractors and assign work based on their availability.
Cooperation Is Key
It’s material availability that has been a concern for this emergency. Significant amounts of storm drain pipe and large size pumps have been in demand.
“Storm drain repair is our most immediate and urgent need,” Lehner noted.
Fortunately for everyone, Lehner said there has been good cooperation from contractors and suppliers, who have made themselves available around the clock.
“It’s been a real team effort. There’s a Vulcan quarry on the north side of the county that kept operating 24/7 because we needed to backfill with aggregate and rock since there was no dirt available.”
While it is too soon to tally the total amount of materials used to repair flood damage, an idea of the magnitude of the work involved can be gleaned from the 1,500 tons (1,360 t) of 57 stone needed to backfill a single barrel crossing.
According to Rental Management magazine, area rental stores have been inundated with customers searching for equipment to save or repair their homes and businesses. Some stores, like Ready Rent All in Decatur, were out of carpet cleaners, wet-dry vacuums, blowers, dehumidifiers and fans. B&G Equipment and Supply in Austell — one of the worst-affected areas, where the USGS measured the greatest flow on Sweetwater Creek ever recorded — had to dig a moat around the building and set up pumps to stay open.
Challenges Rise as Water Ebbs
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” Lehner lamented.
Due to an overflowing Sweetwater Creek, I-20 and I-285 were closed for several days. Where streets aren’t closed, they are often blocked, making it even more difficult to get large equipment into narrow, tight culverts.
The conditions are unlike tornado recovery, where dangers lurk overhead. Ice storms are the worst, he said, with damage both overhead and on the ground, but flooding poses considerable difficulties. Many things are affected on the ground, from bacteria contamination from sewage overflow and stagnant water to underground utilities like water and sewer that can cross storm drains. The Clayton sewage plant in Atlanta was flooded and dumped millions of gallons of untreated sewage into the river. Days later, city officials claimed the plant was operating at 70 percent effectiveness, but warned it could be weeks before it returned to full working order.
D&H Construction, based in Atlanta, dealt with some difficult ground conditions when they conducted an emergency repair of a large section of sewer pipe that had been washed away by the Sope Creek in Marietta. Using a John Deere 450J LT to push backfill material, they installed 36-in. (91.4 cm) pipe to replace approximately 40 ft. (12 m) of sewer line that had been washed away by the flood.
Just as GDOT has contracts in place before crises occur, it also has a preparedness plan. “There are several areas that are known to flood,” Lehner explained. “Roads along the Chattahoochee River, low roads with creeks that rise fast, like Sweetwater Creek ... We target them first.”
Some areas pose problems one way or another. Lake Altoona is a Corp of Engineers reservoir that has hovered near flood stage for days. While they can regulate the water so flooding doesn’t occur downstream, because of the heavy amounts of rain that has fallen in such a short period of time, many roads above the reservoir are closed due to flooding.
Paying For It
GDOT maintains a discretionary reserve in its budget for emergencies, but because the area has been declared a federal disaster area, Lehner expected funding for much of the cleanup to come from federal sources. However, federal aid does not extend to state- or county-owned infrastructure such as roads and bridges.
“We meet with FEMA. Some things should be covered 100 percent; others will be only 75 percent covered.”
Paying for cleanup and recovery is going to be difficult in an area where the unemployment rate is more than 10 percent. For those who have jobs, getting to work has been impossible, due to so many impassable roads and businesses. It’s a region where flooding is not a usual occurrence, so most homeowners and businesses don’t carry flood insurance. Long after flood waters have receded, residents will still be contending with issues left behind by this record-setting calamity. CEG