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Businesses still feeling impact a year after South Hall floods

One business suing railroad over culvert collapse

POSTED: May 18, 2014 12:30 a.m.

Underwater and overwhelmed.

That was the disaster summed up for many Hall County residents last May 19, when 7 inches fell in a few hours, collapsing roads and culverts, stranding residents and ruining offices.

“We had been watching the radar and watching the weather all night,” David Kimbrell, Hall County Fire Services chief and Emergency Management Agency director, recalled.

“We knew it was raining really hard and fast, but it seemed like everything kind of broke loose at one time. Calls began to come in of pipes washing out and roads being blocked.”

The rebuilding and infrastructure repair began soon after and has long since been completed, but some costly work — particularly in Flowery Branch, which took much of the storm’s brunt — has yet to be done.

And for those caught up in nature’s fury, memories are hardly fading.

Brad Wiehe woke that day to find his business, 413 Insurance Services, under several feet of water at the Wayne Center off Ga. 13/Atlanta Highway in Flowery Branch. He has spent the past year trying to recover, including moving his office to his home for a time and renting a storage unit where he could dry out reams of documents.

“We probably had about a thousand files,” he said.

Ken Rearden, Hall County’s public works and utilities director, was on vacation in Arizona when he got a call that morning from one of the Hall County commissioners asking “What are you doing about all this water?”

He quickly deferred to Hall employees closer to home, and they jumped into action.

“All hands on deck — that’s what stands out to me (about the day),” said Hall government spokeswoman Katie Crumley. “Public works was obviously the department most involved, but we had the marshal’s and sheriff’s offices trying to keep people away from giant holes (caused by washouts).”

Crumley spent the day — her wedding anniversary — at the 911 center.

Fire and emergency personnel, as well as top county officials, also were out in force, she said.

One of the worst disaster scenes was Stephens Road near Pipsissewa Drive. A gaping hole in the road at Mud Creek drew onlookers and Atlanta TV news helicopters alike.

That section of road didn’t reopen until mid-August.

Another area hard hit was a heavily traveled section of McEver Road near the Flowery Branch-Oakwood border. Water flooded a culvert on Mud Creek, washing away the road.

At the time, Oakwood had been laying plans to eventually replace the culvert. The storm kicked into gear those efforts, which would end up costing Oakwood about $500,000. The good thing “is we had already done the hydrological analysis,” City Manager Stan Brown said.

“We were fortunate in that school had ended and we didn’t have school traffic to contend with,” he said.

The section of road reopened in early August, just before the start of the 2013-14 school year.

The Atlanta Highway flooding also drew spectators, as water covered a wide area between the city’s sewer plant and Wayne Drive, which leads to a dozen homes.

The Wayne Center, owned by Alan and Mike Wayne, stood like a deserted island in the vast flood waters.

“I can’t clean it up until I get the water out of it,” Alan Wayne said at the time. “My concern is more for the tenants who are occupying the building and trying to take care of them.”

The Waynes filed suit May 8 in Hall Superior Court against Norfolk Southern Railway Co., alleging the company’s modification of a culvert structure caused rainwater to flood the area instead of flowing into Lake Lanier.

A response has not yet been filed by Norfolk, and spokesman Rick Harris said he could not comment on pending litigation. By Georgia code, the company has 45 days from the date the suit was filed to respond.

Harris, however, did comment on a culvert project the railroad has planned for the area.

“We have taken into consideration design options that consider existing conditions of the high lake level, soils in the area and the underlying rock,” he said. “We have concluded that the best approach to this is to put in some precast concrete box culverts.”

On May 9, the railroad submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers, which governs Lake Lanier, the request for a permit to carry out the project. Approval could come within 45 days of the application, Harris said.

If all goes well, construction could start in July and finish by November, with the project taking place at Flowery Branch Creek and a tributary stream.

The city of Flowery Branch also has a major project in development — replacing a culvert at Flowery Branch Creek and Spring Street with a bridge.

“We ended up going with a bridge because we felt that was something that would allow an even greater volume of water and ensure we wouldn’t run into this problem again,” City Planner John McHenry said.

He said the project, estimated to cost $350,000, could start this summer.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is helping with funding in the Oakwood, Flowery Branch and Hall County projects. Between the governments, replacement and repair costs will easily top $1.5 million.

The county also needed to do road repairs at Trudy Road, Cove Creek Drive and Malibu Ridge, and culvert work at Bolding Road at Ga. 53/Winder Highway and Talmo Road at Ed Cobb Road in East Hall.

More work still needs to be done on Cove Creek, which is in the White Horse Creek subdivision off Lights Ferry Road. At the time of the flood, the subdivision’s streets hadn’t been accepted into the county’s road network, Rearden said.

“We’re now working with the developer’s attorney, the homeowners, our attorneys and the bank that’s holding the bond (on the subdivision), trying to figure out how those people are going to get their roads paved and get this culvert repaired,” he said.

Another result of the flood was a move by the Hall County Board of Commissioners to buy 200 feet of different sizes of concrete pipe, “so it’s stockpiled over at the landfill,” Rearden said. “So, we’re ready to go (for the next heavy rain). We don’t have to wait on pipe brought in by a vendor.”

The commission also approved a resolution to set new standards for culverts and stormwater pipes, requiring new underground structures to be made of “more durable materials with higher life expectancy, so as to protect the financial resources and other interests of Hall County.”

Basically, corrugated metal pipe is prohibited under driveways crossing live streams. And subdivision builders can only use concrete or high-density polyethylene pipe in places where there’s a live stream or under county roads.

“That was a lesson learned (in the storm),” Rearden said. “We think concrete is a more durable product out there.”

Other takeaways include “watching the weather better” and keeping in touch with on-call contractors, he said.

Still, “I don’t think anybody can prohibit an act of God or Mother Nature, so we couldn’t ever have stopped that from happening, I don’t think,” Rearden said.

What happened on May 19 “just heightens the awareness that water is a powerful force, and you have to be respectful of that,” Brown said. “You have to have a good infrastructure plan and be prepared to pull all the parties together to respond.

“We need to realize those storm events will come again and it’s important that when we plan and design projects, we do it in way that we’re able to accommodate those heavy (rains). We don’t use undersized pipes ... and we go with more long-term, durable materials.”

Kimbrell said the flooding “was significant, but the good thing about it was there wasn’t loss of life.”

Wiehe, speaking to his situation, also put the event in perspective.

“I really look at the big picture — this was really nothing, compared to what other people go through,” said Wiehe, whose office now sits on the second floor of a building off Church Street in Flowery Branch.

“We were heartbroken, but it was more or less we’ve got to clean up and move on.”


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