Atlanta flood: After drought, residents caught by surprise

The lesson from the Atlanta flood is that many Americans are unprepared for disaster. Nationally, about 30 percent of storm victims live outside 100-year flood zones.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The reddish waters of the metro Atlanta flood continued to ebb Wednesday, leaving many Georgians knee-deep in mud and uncertain about their future.

Over the weekend and lasting into Tuesday, the floods struck a wide swathe of neighborhoods from rural Cherokee County to the northern suburb of Buckhead, taking ten lives and causing $250 million in damages.

Coming unexpectedly after a two-year regional drought that had residents more used to water restrictions than inundated interstates, many here now face a harsh reality: They didn't think their homes would flood, so they didn't bother to get flood insurance.

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Some of those affected took a double-dunk: Their mortgages are already under water, which means they won't have any equity to borrow against to rebuild.

"I saw some potentially bankrupt families," Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine said after a helicopter tour Tuesday.

Around Atlanta, water could still be seen lapping at some rooftops, the result of nearly 20 inches of rain falling in 35 hours in the Georgia mountains. Many residents left homeless have few options.

"We don't know what to do," Jenny Roque, who lived in a mobile home park west of Atlanta with her husband and four children, told the Associated Press. "The only thing we have left is our truck."

Failure to anticipate

The number of uninsured victims, experts say, shows that even after a decade of major disasters, understanding and communicating risk remains a weak spot in America's preparedness.

Thirty percent of Americans who get hit by floodwaters live outside established 100-year flood zones, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The 1993 Midwest floods and the 2006 flood in Washington, D.C., are other examples where many property owners failed to anticipate the flooding hazard.

"We're living in a world of great hydrologic and climate uncertainty. So the lesson here is that we can't necessarily count on what we saw in the past as the judgement of where storms are going to be in the future," says University of Maryland engineering professor Gerald Galloway, author of the 1994 Galloway Report on flood insurance and a current White House adviser.

In Atlanta, explosive growth in the past 50 years means that residential and industrial development may have contributed to flooding in areas that historically have stayed dry.

Signs of faulty risk assessment could be found even after the flood – at the most personal level. A 46-year-old Tennessee man was still missing two days after he took a $5 bet that he could swim across a swollen ditch next to his house. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) warned residents Monday not to go out on roadways after emergency officials found themselves rescuing risk-takers.

Improving disaster preparedness

Still, there have been some efforts to upgrade preparedness nationally. Some experts are pushing FEMA to offer federal flood insurance for 500-year storms instead of 100-year storms (that is, storms that are likely to happen once in 500 years as opposed to a 100 years). A growing number of communities such as Charlotte, N.C., have begun in-depth flood mapping that takes into account development patterns in order to give a more accurate picture of what a flood might look like.

And in Atlanta, plans to build a series of reservoirs to alleviate future droughts could also help to control future floods

But a heavy responsibility also falls on property owners who need to better "visualize" possible disasters, says Mr. Galloway. "I think people are beginning to say, 'We cannot go on like this, having people caught unawares.' "

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