DOUGLASVILLE, GA – Robin Wagner remembers waking in the middle of the night more than once to the sounds of pounding rain and crashing thunder. Each time meant she had to grab her flashlight and rush outside to check the height of the creek that ran behind her house.
Wagner, a single mother, and her daughter, moved into their comfortable two-story home in 1997. For the first six years, all was peaceful. But in 2003, as the surrounding area experienced an increase in development, Wagner’s house began to flood with disturbing regularity. On numerous occasions, floodwaters would inundate her house and reach as high as four feet inside as the nearby creek overflowed.
“Twice the fire department had to rescue us in boats,” said Wagner. “One time we escaped with only the clothes on our backs. After that, my daughter always packed her suitcase so that if we had to get out fast she would have clothes. She packed every time it rained.”
The Wagners needed a permanent way out.
The Douglasville – Douglas County Water and Sewer Authority (WSA) is a publicly owned utility company that provides services to 40,000 customers in Douglas County. As a participating member of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, the Douglasville – Douglas County WSA is required to generate future condition flood studies and update its floodplain maps to reflect future flood hazards within its jurisdiction.
By 2006, following the most recent updates of its floodplain information, the Douglasville – Douglas County WSA had identified a large number of houses throughout the county that were in a Special Flood Hazard Area and at high risk of flooding. To mitigate the risk, the WSA began by looking at six of the homes most prone to flooding, one of which was Wagner’s. Because the houses were scattered throughout the county, Douglasville – Douglas County WSA officials visited all six homeowners individually to share the county’s updated floodplain information and discuss the homeowners’ participation in a voluntary property acquisition project.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funded property acquisitions and demolitions involved a community offering owners of floodprone structures market value for their property to give them the ability to relocate out of harm’s way. Once the properties are purchased and the structures are removed, the land is converted to permanent open space and maintained in perpetuity for uses compatible with open space, recreational, or wetlands management practices.
To begin the process, the Douglasville – Douglas County WSA applied to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency for a Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) grant. PDM grants, which are funded by FEMA, make money available to state and local governments to implement cost-effective mitigation measures to reduce risk to life and property prior to disaster events. Grants are awarded on a competitive basis and require a cost-share. FEMA funds 75 percent; the remaining 25 percent must come from non-federal sources, such as local or state governments.
A PDM grant of $866,000 provided the funding necessary for the Douglasville – Douglas County WSA to acquire and demolish the six endangered houses.
“Had it not been for the chance to participate in the buyout program, I’d still be there with no options and that’s scary… really scary,” said Wagner. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for homeowners to get out of the floodplain and start over.”
Since the completion of the first residential acquisition project, the Douglasville – Douglas County WSA has received two additional mitigation grants that will fund the purchase of 12 additional houses in the county’s floodplain. The nearly $2 million in grants are coming from the PDM program and FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which also funds projects that are designed to minimize or reduce future disaster damages.
“I think the acquisition program is one of the best options all around when dealing with flood-prone houses in the floodplain,” said John Barron, a supervising engineer for the Douglasville – Douglas County WSA. “The federal government saves money from flood insurance claims. The sellers win by receiving market value for their homes, and the community wins because we don’t have to rescue people trapped by floodwaters.”
In September 2009, record storms dumped up to 22 inches of rain throughout northern and western Georgia, causing major flooding, widespread damage and a number of fatalities. In Douglas County, Sweetwater Creek, which runs along the eastern side of the county, exceeded all previously recorded flood levels for that area, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data on this event. Of the 10 fatalities during the floods throughout Georgia, six were in Douglas County.
“My house would have been completely under water after this recent storm,” said Wagner. “Once the water receded, I visited the old neighborhood to check on friends and the sight was unbelievable. I feel so sad for everyone there. On the other hand I am so thankful for the buyout program and that the Douglasville – Douglas County WSA, the state and FEMA helped me to get out.”