Flood: Come Hell or High Water

Below is an excerpt from part three of The Ripple Effect


With over 5.4 million residents, the Atlanta metropolitan area was the fastest-growing, most populous region in the Southeast in 2007, and the city promoted itself as being “the economic engine of the South.” But as Atlanta grew rapidly—starting in the mid-seventies, with the city’s rise accelerated by its hosting of the 1996 Olympic Games, which led to a con- struction boom—city and state leaders failed to create comprehensive water policies or invest in water infrastructure.
The spring and summer of 2007 were virtually rainless, and Atlanta’s main reservoir, Lake Sidney Lanier, dropped a record fiteen feet. Front- page photographs across the nation showed docks high and dry and boats stranded on the lake’s gravel ledges. In April, Georgia was placed under statewide restrictions that limited outdoor watering to three days a week.
In May, Atlanta allowed watering only on the weekends. In August, tem- peratures reached 104 degrees, one degree below Atlanta’s record, set in 1980. In September, officials banned all outdoor watering in the northern half of the state for the first time in history. In October, Atlanta officials asserted that Lake Lanier was less than three months from turning empty, while smaller reservoirs were dropping even faster. In November, Geor- gia governor Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency for the north- ern third of his state, asked President George W. Bush to label it a major disaster area, and cut public utilities’ water withdrawals by 10 percent. Then Perdue joined hands with supporters on the statehouse steps to pray for rain.
To some, the calamity was no surprise. Years of pro-growth policies and lax zoning had led to poor water management and urban sprawl; hydrol- ogists had warned Georgia for nearly two decades that such a drought was possible, but legislators had never developed a coherent response. In the 1990s, plans to build a network of state reservoirs were defeated, largely by developers who were angered that they would not be allowed to build homes around the new lakes. A 2003 plan to sell water permits, which would limit water use, was derailed by Georgians who feared that neighboring states would be able to outbid them. A 2004 initiative to build a state-funded regional reservoir was defeated. At the same time, local farmers planted thousands of acres of water-intensive sod to embellish the growing supply of new housing developments, while golf courses and car washes faced no restrictions on water use during the three-year drought.
“There’s no question this situation could have been avoided,” said for- mer governor Roy Barnes. “We’ve known this for a long time. We have a state approaching nine million people . . . [and] we have no plan for water.”
The Southeastern drought began in late 2005 and lasted through the summer of 2007. Many commentators blamed global warming, which seemed to make sense. But ater carefully reviewing historical climate data, experts concluded that global warming was not the culprit. In 2009, a team of climate researchers led by Columbia University’s Dr. Richard Seagar (who argues that the Southwest is facing a permanent drying out) undertook a dispassionate appraisal of the Southeastern drought and dis- covered that the three-plus-year dry spell was “quite typical” for the region and will be repeated.
What Atlantans didn’t focus on was the second major finding of Seagar’s study: “In the near future, precipitation will increase year around in the Southeast.” This prediction was borne out almost immediately.
In June 2009, Governor Perdue’s theatrical prayer for rain was finally answered with light precipitation, and Atlanta was able to lit water-use restrictions for the first time in three years. Over the summer, the weather seemed to normalize. Then, on Tuesday, September 15, a low-pressure system crossed Georgia, collided with a high-pressure system over the East Coast, and stalled. It began to rain. As the week wore on, the rain fell harder and then harder still.
On Saturday, September 19, some 3.7 inches of rain fell on the city, which was more than double the record for that date, while over 5 inches fell on the suburbs. By Monday, creeks had overtopped their banks. Forty homes were flooded, power was knocked out across the Atlanta metropolitan area, trees heavy with water crashed to the ground, and the Red Cross began to evacuate people. It rained for eight days straight. In one seventy-two-hour stretch, 20 inches of rain fell on parts of Atlanta.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, fear of drought turned into fear of drowning.

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