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Flood victims say their complaints have fallen on deaf ears

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It's been more than four years since a devastating flood brought vast property damage to at least 70 homes in southeast and southwest Atlanta, but residents continue to fight for compensation for what they say was the city's failure to fix and maintain its storm-water infrastructure.

Last month, two attorneys filed lawsuits on behalf of more than 30 homeowners in Fulton County Superior Court, alleging negligence by the city. The lawsuits claim the flooding occurred because the city failed to properly maintain its storm-water drainage system and to increase its capacity as Atlanta's population grew.

Residents say the city ignored their repeated requests to remove trash and debris from catch basins so rainfall could flow into storm drains. Instead, the lawsuits allege the city knowingly allowed the flooding to occur. The residents are seeking an unspecified amount in damages.

"What's troubling is the city is not willing to invest money to fix the problem," says attorney Sam Starks. "They'd much rather defend against a flooding lawsuit than deal with the severity of the issue."

The complaints are the second batch of lawsuits filed against the city's response to a storm in September 2002 that caused approximately six feet of water and raw sewage to flood some streets in south Atlanta. A jury awarded almost $2 million to 18 plaintiffs in January to help residents fix their homes, but the city has appealed the decision.

City Attorney Linda DiSantis says the residents in the lawsuits live in a natural floodplain and that the city isn't responsible for cleaning up private properties. She also says the storm-water infrastructure was built to accepted standards when it was constructed in the mid-1900s.

Fifty years ago, the pipes were able to handle runoff from storms. As Atlanta grew, additional driveways, patios, roofs and parking lots increased storm-water runoff and complaints about drainage started to trickle into the city in the 1970s.

The drainage problems could be fixed by adding more catch basins and expanding the size of the pipes, but it would cost millions. "A decision could be made to upgrade the system," DiSantis says. "It would require either a new funding source or a drastic reprioritization of funds away from other programs."

The city did agree to help approximately 40 residents patch up their homes after the 2002 flood by offering them "forgiveable" loans through a federal home-repair program. The loans do not have to be repaid if residents stay in their homes for a certain number of years. If they sell their homes, they are obligated to repay a portion of the funds they were given.

However, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development review in 2005 determined there were "serious program violations." The HUD review also concluded that contractors were "paid inflated prices for work that did not meet industry standard" or were "clearly not performed."

The monies used to fix the flooded homes are earmarked for a program that helps disabled and elderly homeowners bring their houses up to city code. The city halted the program after an internal investigation conducted in July revealed mismanagement in the home-repair program. The findings led to the early retirement of five city employees. HUD is currently reviewing the city's investigation, and has criticized the city for the quality of workmanship on both the home-repair program and the homes owned by flood victims.

As a stipulation for the home-repair program, all the homeowners had to agree to use contractors hand-picked by the city.

"The issue was the way the individual homes were rehabbed," says a senior HUD official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The quality of the work did not meet the standards that we expect a rehabilitated property to meet."

Gracie Hutcherson, who has lived in her house on Parsons Place for 20 years, says contractors had to gut her entire home because mold had crawled up her bedroom walls and caused her to develop asthma. She says water still leaks through an overhead light fixture when it rains. Hilliard Lee, 87, who lives across the street from Hutcherson and has lived in the same house since 1942, says contractors left a live wire exposed, which caused a fire to ignite and spread across the back of his house.

"The city poured salt in the wound," says Clint Sitton, an attorney who works with Starks. "They created the flooding problem and then rode in on white horses with HUD money to try and fix it."

The flood waters hit around 8 p.m. on Sept. 21, 2002, one week after tropical storm Hanna caused flooding across the state. The storm dropped an additional three inches of rain in Atlanta and within an hour, street signs became barely visible and cars floated down roads. Hutcherson, 53, says water grazed the top of her five-foot white fence and covered the six concrete steps leading up to her porch. "The water didn't have anywhere to go," Hutcherson says. "I thought, 'Oh my God, we're going to lose our homes.'"

Firemen evacuated residents in southwest Atlanta by boats. Many people were forced to spend up to a year with friends and family while raw sewage, water and mold were removed from their houses. The city says the storm was "a natural disaster -- an act of God" and that no functioning storm-water system could've handled the magnitude of the flood. But Steven Sheets, an engineer who performed one of three studies on drainage and sewer improvements commissioned by the city, testified in January that the system is so overwhelmed that a similar flood could happen every 10 years.

The irony of it all, according to Sitton, is that the city's ongoing $4 billion sewer project won't help prevent the flooding. However, DiSantis says that although the project doesn't involve the city's storm-water infrastructure, the tunnels being built as part of the project will help store overflow storm water and wastewater during heavy rains.

The lawyers say the flood victims are mostly low-income people who don't have much political clout. "These are horrendous problems that you don't see in other neighborhoods," Starks says. "If these neighborhoods were in Buckhead, there would be a solution."

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