The landscape of Georgia is lush and beautiful with scenery that ranges from the flat swampland and gently rolling hills of the coastal plains in the south to the hills and valleys of the centrally-located Piedmont Plateau to the mountainous terrain of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the north.
Like many other states, Georgia has experienced its share of floods. In fact, it isn't uncommon for communities in the state to suffer some level of flooding whenever it rains. According to a report released in 2000 by Georgia's Emergency Management Agency, almost three-quarters of disaster-related losses since 1990 have been due to floods, with the total amount of damage reaching $2 billion.
Also like many other states, there isn't just one cause of floods, but rather different causes that, either together or on their own, wreak havoc.
Causes of Floods in Georgia
It may seem obvious to list rain as one of the causes of floods, but in Georgia, the top-occurring natural disasters are thunderstorms which can drop significant amounts of rainfall across the state and bring about widespread damage. Georgia experiences moderate-to-heavy levels of rainfall, with yearly totals ranging from 45 inches to 75 inches.
Additionally, Georgia is susceptible to hurricanes and tropical storms from both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico during the June 1st to November 30th hurricane season.
As its name implies, urban flooding occurs in urban areas where the natural vegetation has been replaced with man-made pavement and concrete, both of which are unable to absorb any water. So long as the drainage infrastructure is in good working condition, hasn't become blocked by debris or overloaded with excess water, flooding can be kept at bay. Once the drainage process is disrupted, however, flooding can become not only problematic, but potentially deadly.
Flash floods occur rapidly, leaving little time for warning. They happen when an area is inundated with water in a very short amount of time, and they can occur in both urban and rural areas, putting every resident of the state at risk. Flood waters flow downhill, regardless of the type of flood, which makes anyone located in low-lying areas, near a water source such as a lake, river, or stream, or downstream from a dam most at risk. Additionally, any excess rain that falls in mountainous areas will quickly head downhill, especially if the ground is still winter-frozen or already in a state of oversaturation, pouring into and potentially overwhelming lakes, rivers, and streams, and turning them into deadly weapons.
As implied in the previous section, flash floods can lead to river floods, which have lent much to Georgia in the way of natural disasters. An example is 1994's Tropical Storm Alberto, whose rainfall resulted in river flooding among the worst Georgia has ever seen.
While river floods can happen at any time of year in Georgia, historically, the most common time for them to occur is between January and April, with the majority of them having occurred during March. At 21 locations in Georgia, an estimated 1,170 river floods occurred between 1975 and 2006, with 313 of them being substantial.
There are over 100 dams across Georgia, making dam failure a concern for flooding. While catastrophic dam failures are rare, they can, and do, happen as seen by the failure of the Kelly Barnes Dam in 1977. Some causes of dam failure are construction or design flaws, poor or ineffective maintenance, erosion, or earthquakes.
A Few of Georgia's 20th Century Floods
In February 1900, the Ocmulgee River overflowed and caused significant flooding in Macon. The Southern Railway tracks 6-8 miles from the city were submerged as was the lower portion of East Macon. Parts of the Central City Park were also flooded. The waters raged so terribly, it was feared that the Fifth Street Bridge would be swept away. Even though the bridge survived, a number of houses on the east side of the city were washed away and destroyed, and a water main burst in the same area. The agricultural loss was significant and included 5,000 acres of destroyed oats.
In early November 1977, the Kelly Barnes Dam, which sits above Toccoa Falls Bible College - failed following an extended period of rain. Flood waters inundated part of the Bible College campus as well as a nearby trailer park. 39 people were killed and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration and the Housing of Urban Development estimated the damages to be approximately $2.8 million.
An investigation into the dam's failure was conducted and the reasons were undetermined, but the most probable cause was a combination of factors: a land slide on a slope downstream assumed to be linked to piping, a localized breach in the crest of the dam coupled with further erosion, and the embankment downstream being saturated.
In July 1994, what remained of Tropical Storm Alberto hovered at a standstill above Georgia over July 4th weekend, resulting in 55 of Georgia's 159 counties being inundated with floodwaters. More than 25 inches of rain fell in less than 24 hours. As the worst natural disaster to impact Georgia, Alberto ensured that basic services were cut off in the affected areas. 34 people lost their lives, and an additional 50,000 were left homeless. In a gruesome sight, 400 coffins were swept from their over-saturated resting places and floated down flooded streets. Crops and farmland were all but destroyed. In southern Georgia, rivers rose to 44 feet above the flood stage, and 10,000 square miles of land were covered by water.
In September 2009, floods raged across the southeastern United States, impacting 5 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. 10 people died.
In Georgia, historic floods broke records more than a century old. Atlanta experienced the worst floods in the state. Initial damages were estimated at $250 million, but that estimate was quickly raised to $500 million with the understanding that it could grow even higher. 20,000 homes, businesses, and other buildings received major damage.
The Chattahoochee River reached water levels of a 500-year flood when it reached its highest levels since the Buford Dam was completed in 1956. Peachtree Creek overran its spanning bridge, while the Nancy Creek destroyed the Peachtree-Dunwoody Road bridge, which didn't reopen until March of the following year, nearly 6 months later. Other effects of the floods include:
Sweetwater Creek rose to its highest ever-recorded level. This, coupled with flooding from the Chattahoochee River, closed I-20, west of Atlanta, for 2 days. Floodwaters submerged numerous houses and buildings.
Noonday Creek overflowed in Cherokee County, flooding I-575 and SR92, among others
Little River in Cherokee County overran its banks to flood the Georgia 5 and Arnold Mill Road, causing rush hour to extend well past 9:00 p.m.
In Cobb County, Kennesaw State University experienced significant flooding, including the east parking deck, a number of buildings along Campus Loop Drive, and the Science building. Clarkdale Elementary School was inundated with floodwaters up to its roof, and sections along Brownsville Road as well as the entirety of Powder Springs Park were completed underwater.
Parts of Atlanta proper were submerged including several neighborhoods and the Downtown Connector (intersection of I-75 and I-85).
After all was said and done, 17 counties in Georgia were declared Federal Disaster Areas: Bartow, Carroll, Catoosa, Chattooga, Cherokee, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Heard, Newton, Paulding, Rockdale, Walker, and Stephens.
Georgia is a state rife with history, beginning with its founding as a colony in 1733 by James Oglethorpe, through the Civil War, the 1996 Summer Olympics held in Atlanta, up to the present where history continues to be made. It's easy to forget that natural disasters play a role in that history as well. Please visit the rest of our website for more information concerning flood insurance in Georgia. For more information about preparing for emergencies, please visit the Emergency Management Agency/Homeland Security.