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Water wages war: Unprecedented flood grips county

LAWRENCEVILLE - As the rain poured down in the early hours of Monday morning, even the rescuers needed rescuing.

After nearly a week of rain, severe urban flash floods left a Lawrenceville woman dead and nearly 300 people were stranded in their homes in Gwinnett alone. The damage was felt across metro Atlanta, where at least four more people were killed.

Gov. Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency for 17 Georgia counties, including Gwinnett.

As local police and firefighters responded to emergencies, at least a dozen major roads were closed, along with two sewage treatment plants and more than 100 schools. Gwinnett County Public Schools will be closed again today, mostly due to concerns over transporting children to school.

"This is a very dangerous situation," Gwinnett County Fire Department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said, adding that several police officers had to be rescued while attempting to help others. Two rescue boats also capsized during the early morning efforts. 'In my 22 years in the fire department here in Gwinnett we have not experienced flooding to this degree."

While the Yellow River and other local creeks crested, Greg Swanson, acting emergency operations director, said the incidents were mostly attributed to urban flash flooding, which is hard to predict.

From 2 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday, the fire department responded to 323 incidents, including a 5 a.m. call about a woman's van caught in rushing water. Two hours later, by the time emergency responders were able to find the vehicle, which was swept 500 feet from Desiree Drive in Lawrenceville, 39-year-old Seydi Burciaga had drowned inside the van, Rutledge said.

"There's a tremendous amount of force even with a few inches of water," Rutledge said.

While the severity of the weather waned for about five hours, during the middle of the day, emergency crews caught up on calls and reassessed equipment, recovering one of the two capsized boats.

"We certainly hope that we've seen the worst, but we want to be prepared in case we haven't," Swanson said at about 11 a.m. Monday.

But in the afternoon, rain again engulfed the county, causing fire and police crews to return to the flooded streets.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the area hardest hit by Monday morning's rain was Lawrenceville, where about 7 inches fell within 24 hours. According to Steve Leo, director of Gwinnett County's stormwater division, the amount nearly eclipsed the 7.7 inches considered to be a rain event that occurs only once every 100 years - and that was before the second wave of the storm passed through the county.

When the Yellow River's waters topped electrical controls for a pump station at the county's Yellow River Water Reclamation Facility near Lilburn, officials began diverting wastewater to other facilities. But officials said they did not expect any environmental consequences. Other pump stations and another wastewater facility were also closed.

The rushing water created a sinkhole in the parking lot of the Microtel in Lawrenceville and washed away train tracks in Lilburn. Norcross' City Council meeting was canceled due to the flooding.

While more than a dozen major roads were closed during the heart of the storm - including a portion of Stone Mountain Freeway in DeKalb County that was closed due to a mudslide - at least four would be closed for several days while repairs were made, officials said.

"Until the water recedes, we won't know how much damage is underneath it," said Kevin Coyle, of the county's transportation department. "We have no idea what the cost figures are now."

American Red Cross official Russ Willard said the volunteer organization opened a shelter at First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville on Crogan Street, after more than 100 people were rescued from the Jones Mobile Home Park in Norcross.

Later in the day, another 150 to 200 people were displaced from another mobile home park in Lawrenceville.

In all, the flooding resulted in more than 1,400 home and business claims and another 200 automobile claims with State Farm Insurance, the state's largest home and auto insurer, a press release said.

In the Mountain Park area, the early rains caused flooding at a school bus parking lot near Parkview High School, and the force of the water was enough to topple one bus onto its side, said Gwinnett Public Schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach.

Some students had already arrived at Greater Atlanta Christian School Monday before Indian Trail-Lilburn Road was blocked, but school officials said absences and tardies will be excused.

While Georgia Gwinnett College, Buford City Schools and Barrow County schools remained open, classes were also canceled at Ivy Preparatory Academy in Norcross and Providence Christian Academy and Killian Hill Christian School, both in Lilburn.

SideBar:

Rainfall totals for the past week at DeKalb Peachtree Airport, the National

Weather Service's closest automated station to Gwinnett County