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One year later: A look at how far everyone has come since storms caused historic flooding

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A year ago this week, Lawrenceville resident Dan Welgoss was as messy emotionally as his beloved home was physically.

His tall, 1993 two-story on a hill was mired in muck and soggy drywall. His kitchen looked bombed. His leafy backyard, usually hugged by the Yellow River, had morphed into a muscular, angry body of water with submerged trees crashing into his home like submarines.

Quite a difference one year doth make.

Welgoss, a single father who's since started a home-based furniture sales business, had contractors put the finishing touches on his repaired home this week. Everything he'd lost when 7 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, creating historic flood patterns, has been replaced, down to a keepsake pocket knife that was swept away. (He found a spot-on replica of the knife in a New York City shop, the icing on his rebuilding-phase cake.)

Welgoss said the depression and stress brought on by the floods have dissipated.

"We were in serious shock," he said. "It didn't get much better for a while -- work, sleep, focus, haggling with contractors, making major decisions quickly. It was overwhelming, really."

Welgoss, like many flood victims, stubbornly made the best of a historically bad situation. Nearing the first anniversary of the Sept. 21 deluge that damaged 182 local homes, victims spoke of endurance, of neighbors linking their time and talents to overcome Mother Nature's drubbing. No one interviewed for this story said they have considered relocating, and all their neighbors have stayed put as well.

"It's back to normal," said R.C. Brown, a Lawrenceville father of two who shelled out $20,000 to cover fixes his insurance wouldn't, he said.

Damage estimates on Brown's home were north of $70,000, and he didn't get truly settled back in until a couple weeks before Christmas. Brown had flood insurance and was therefore ineligible for FEMA dollars, he said.

In terms of precautions, Brown said his hands are basically tied, living in a flood plane near the Yellow River that, fed by days of pounding rain, crested nearly 13 feet above flood stage.

"If (the river) ever does that again, you'd have to have a wall higher than your house to stop something like that," he said.

Officials in Gwinnett County, one of 17 in Georgia declared a federal disaster area, applied for about $9 million for repairs. So far, the county has been approved for less than a fourth of that, and has received about $1.5 million, officials said.

Residents reached beyond FEMA and the Gwinnett Emergency Management Agency for help.

Ruben Brown, Atlanta Red Cross spokesman, said his agency opened shelters at churches in Lawrenceville and Snellville and conducted a mobile outreach as part of the flood operation.

The Red Cross provided meals, disaster casework and financial assistance to about 140 Gwinnett households, Brown said.

That's a little more than the 125 Gwinnett residences that a FEMA damage assessment found to be total losses. Of those, 104 were mobile homes.

Another 67 homes were damaged by flooding, according to data released by the county this week. More than 3,000 applied for FEMA assistance by phone or at a temporary recovery center in Lilburn.

Homes weren't the only properties affected by flooding.

Twenty-one park sites spanning from Dacula to Norcross experienced damages such as trail erosion and tree loss. About 80 percent of park repair projects have been wrapped up, a county spokesperson said.

Damages to street culverts totaled $2.7 million. Four bridges on major roads required repairs. More than one-third of the county's fire stations experience roof damages or lightning strikes, the data show. Even a house for the resident officer at Yellow River Park was destroyed, the data show.

Flooding was blamed in at least 10 deaths, including a Gwinnett woman pinned in her van by rising floodwaters.

If there was as a ground zero for Gwinnett's flooding, it was Lawrenceville's tony Connemara subdivision, where a perfect storm of Yellow River and Sweetwater Creek waters swamped the neighborhood and left some residents waterbound for days.

Media flocked to Connemara -- named, perhaps fittingly, for a picturesque district in Ireland that overlooks water -- to see the stranding effects of the floods firsthand. Not to mention high schoolers kayaking around treetops and the subdivision's club house.

David Plumlee, homeowners association president, said about two dozen of Connemara's 258 homes were damaged, but none demolished. By June, normalcy had basically returned. Even the waterlogged clubhouse and pool were opened for the neighborhood's swim team, the Connemarlins.

Early on, neighbors put sweat equity into homes of people they knew, while others organized community meals at the club house to assist those whose kitchens had been destroyed.

"There was quite a crowd, sitting around enjoying each other," Plumlee recalled.

In terms of precautions, Plumlee said many residents have beefed up flood coverage, while others have worked to clear the river and creek of debris. The objective is to keep the flows more streamlined, should the waters make history again.

"Hopefully we never have it happen again," he said, "but it would be irresponsible of us to just mosey down the road like it will never happen."