In need of help: Headaches still persist for flood victims

Four weeks since Yellow River floodwaters burst in Dr. Susan Hillis' basement like a hasty burglar, the seven-bedroom, postmodern house her huge family calls home remains in shambles.

The front yard along Rangewood Drive in Lilburn bears resemblance to a landfill. The rustic front porch, lifted and ripped off the home by powerful currents, remains detached. Inside, the once-finished basement and first floor are skeletal and soggy, despite the ubiquitous, industrial-strength dryers. The HVAC system is rife with sewage, and in every nook hangs the smell of mud.

It's a $150,000 mess, according to contractor estimates, requiring Hillis, her husband and seven of their 10 children to live in a stranger's basement for two weeks.

To compound matters, Hillis said her insurance provider is denying the family's claim. They had a $650 annual flood insurance policy, according to Hillis, but discrepancies have arisen as to when it went active.

"It's tempting to feel like, without a home, we're not a family," Hillis said during a recent tour of her property. "But it's not the home - it's the relationships."

One bright spot is FEMA's willingness to help, said Hillis, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The family qualified for $1,600 per month in rental assistance for up to 18 months. They recently found a five-bedroom rental not five minutes away, still in Parkview High School's district.

A blog titled "Rebuild the Hillis House" has raised $45,000 from friends and strangers, Hillis said. And a candidacy packet for "Extreme Home Makeover" is in the works.

Theirs is one of hundreds of dour stories to emerge from Gwinnett's deadly flooding one month ago. Weeks after waters receded, residents shared anecdotes of frustration, clashes with insurance adjusters and camaraderie born of despair.

"Neighbors are really coming together," said Dan Welgoss, a single father in Lawrenceville who feels slighted by technicalities in his flood coverage plan. "I know it's not just this neighborhood. There's people all over this city going through this nonsense."

Across the county, more than 300 homes were damaged by swollen creeks and rivers coursing, for the most part, through Lilburn and Lawrenceville. At least 125 homes were destroyed, said Gregory Swanson, director of Gwinnett Emergency Management.

The agency hasn't calculated the total cost of damages, Swanson said. But Gwinnett's share of regional damage was significant.

In 17 Georgia counties declared federal disaster areas, FEMA has approved more than $46 million in grants for temporary housing, home repairs and other needs, said Jim Homstad, a FEMA spokesman in Atlanta. About $5.4 million is being directed to Gwinnett, he said.

More than 23,000 homes and business in the area have applied for FEMA assistance. About 3,000 of them are in Gwinnett, Homstad said.

Three FEMA recovery centers in metro Atlanta - including a Lilburn location - will close Friday night. Recovery specialists at the centers have assisted more than 7,500 residents, Homstad said.

"Despite the fact the centers are closing, people can still get the help they need," he said.

Federal assistance for R.C. Brown, a Lawrenceville father of two, ended this week when he moved into the undamaged second floor of his home, ending weeks of vagabond wandering between the homes of friends and family.

So lethargic was the response from his insurance company, Brown wonders if he would have fared better not having flood insurance, he said.

"Here it is a month later, and I just got my first bit of (insurance) money," said Brown, an operation technician at an aircraft manufacturing facility. "I know there's a lot of claims, but it's just frustrating with all the red tape that goes on. It seems like everywhere you turn, you got a brick wall."

A few doors down Vinyard Way, Welgoss moved in his home Tuesday after living with his daughter at La Quinta Inn in Duluth. He feels "gypped" by the $73,000 settlement offered by his insurance provider, he said.

"This was like a huge awakening to the insurance world," said Welgoss, an account executive for Aaron's Office Furniture.

Back at the Hillis household, the family has engaged a team of four lawyers to fight their provider if need be, Susan Hillis said. They're drafting a letter in an effort to avoid litigation, she said.

"It's going to be a long, slow process," said Hillis.

SideBar: At A Glance

Federal help still available:

The FEMA disaster center in Lilburn will close at 7 p.m. Friday, only to reopen Monday as a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Disaster Loan Outreach Center. The SBA is the federal government's loan provider during disasters and can supply low-interest loans to homeowners, renters and businesses.

Applicants can receive assistance by calling FEMA's toll-free help line (1-800-621-FEMA) seven days a week. Gwinnettians can also register for assistance online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov.