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April 27, 2013

What natural events cost Lowndes taxpayers

VALDOSTA — When residents in Valdosta and Lowndes County hear the word “disaster,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably weather.

In the Deep South, near a river plain where floodwaters rise and ebb from season to season and wetlands that distinguish the region from anywhere else in the nation, flooding makes a significant portion of the concern for Lowndes County emergency management.

According to disaster history, the county is plagued by severe storms, heavy rainfall, tornadoes and hurricanes, but lesser-known events like sinkholes and, yes, even severe snowstorms during late winter remain costly, though uncommon.

Lowndes County flooding remains the issue in most recent memory, with the Withlacoochee River swelling its banks in February, wreaking havoc on municipal wastewater collection and treatment systems, damaging homes and businesses and weakening infrastructure.

While the 2013 flood did not reach official disaster declaration proportions, Lowndes County Clerk Paige Dukes concedes “it was a mess.” The county spent $60,000 to repair damages to roads, bridges and other infrastructure after the flooding.

The flooding earlier in the year came as a grim reminder of the federally declared flooding disaster in April 2009 in which 175 homes and 20 businesses were damaged, causing an estimated $6 million in individual property damages and costing another $12 million in infrastructure repairs across the county.

Lowndes County was one of 46 counties in all under the 2009 declaration, which affected 1,875 homes and cost $60 million in public infrastructure damages region-wide, said Emergency Management Agency Director Ashley Tye. Tornado activity in 2012 cost the county $500,000.

Early spring appears to be a costly season for South Georgians, as the state also declared the county a flooding disaster area in March 1998 with 118 other counties, and in March 1991 with 14 others. Severe weather accompanied both events, and tornado activity appeared in the 1998 weather event.

The end of summer marks prime hurricane season for the county, with disaster declarations for Hurricane Floyd in September 1999, Tropical Storm Frances in September 2004, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

While Katrina’s wrath affected mostly Louisiana residents, the entire state of Georgia fell under a Category B, emergency protective measure declaration that September as it saw an influx of Louisiana residents displaced by the hurricane.

The state designated emergency dollars to offset the sheltering costs and to help with the funds associated with helping the evacuees get home and repatriated, Dukes said.

Tropical Storm Allison, which hovered over the southeast for 15 days in 2001, cost the county $740,000 in damages.

“A hit from a hurricane will, on the low end, result in $1 million in damages when considering response, resources and repair,” Dukes said. “Depending upon wind and rainfall, public infrastructure damage can easily escalate into millions in damage.”

Lowndes County experienced more than three million in damages during the course of the 2004 hurricane season when hurricanes Charley, Francis, Ivan and Jeane all impacted the area, Dukes said.

Late spring weather doesn’t just include warm rains. Even snowfall and icy conditions threaten the Deep South on occasion. In March 1993, Lowndes was declared a disaster area for severe snowfall and a winter storm event with 92 other counties.

Other disastrous risks for Lowndes County include sinkholes and fires. In 2011, the county had to repair a sink hole that opened in the middle of Snake Nation Road. Repairs cost $430,000 for the rerouting of the road around the affected area, said Finance Director Stephanie Black.

In 2007, Lowndes County Fire Rescue offered mutual aid to fight the historic wildfire that spread across several wildlands, one of the largest fires in history of the South.

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