This weekend is the 5th anniversary of the epic September 20-21, 2009 flood that left hundreds of residents of southern Cobb County confronting devastation. For the staff of the Sweetwater Valley Library, assisting people at the library on the Monday the rainfall peaked and floodwaters were rising was only the beginning of their efforts to play their part in bringing relief to a community in crisis.
The library is in the Threadmill Complex, a historic mill converted into office space housing City of Austell offices and businesses. The complex is less than a mile from Sweetwater Creek.
Library Manager Rhonda Lane tells the story of how the Sweetwater Valley Library staff responded to the needs of people recovering from the flood:
The 2009 flood and its aftermath was a time of high emotion. At Sweetwater Valley Library, our library staff listened to a lot of emotional and tearful people.
Susan Lester and Pam Houze were working at Sweetwater Valley during the rising of the floodwaters. I was scheduled for the Monday evening shift. By the time I got to Austell, the city was almost completely surrounded by water. I managed to get into and back out of Austell on Veterans Memorial Highway just before the police shut that road down. Water was already up over the road at Thornton Road and Veterans Memorial when I squeaked back west toward home. Creeks had already completely flooded roads between Austell, Mableton and Powder Springs. Roads were impassable. I was unable to reach the library that day and the next day.
Pam and Susan remained at Sweetwater Valley Branch long after other tenants and the City of Austell had closed their offices in the Threadmill Complex and gone home. Several children had been dropped off at the library because the school bus could not get through the floodwaters to take them home.
The children were excited and upset with what was happening. Susan and Pam allowed them to call relatives and friends from the library phone and kept the library open until each child and a few stray adults had finally managed to get picked up and taken to safety. Susan and Pam had to really work to get out and away from Threadmill. Most roads were closed at some point along the way. It took several hours for each staff member to make it home safely.
The library served as a de facto emergency center for many people seeking to recover from the storm and to get their lives back.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency established an office across the hall from us and sent people over periodically to use the computers. Austell library patrons and non-patrons were using Sweetwater Valley to access the FEMA website and other government services. With permission from the library system’s administration, we made free copies for FEMA and for people using their services.
A lot of people were without computers and needed to do a lot of regular life business of sorting out what needed to be done to repair and replace lost items. Library materials lost in the flood were forgiven and fines were waived for several years afterwards as people slowly drifted back.
People displaced by the high waters were staying with others or in shelters away from Austell. They wanted to be close to home even though home was unlivable. We saw many of them at the library as they would come and visit us.
I created a Flood Notebook listing resources for people needing information on floods and flood recovery, including government services, useful flood-related websites, insurance information, mold and mildew cleaning resources, and more.
The library staff fielded many questions from people assisting with the disaster relief effort. We had contractors coming into town looking for flood recovery work checking with the library about where the flooding took place. The City of Austell established a registry of reputable contractors and we directed many contractors and people to the city offices near the library. Volunteers with Mennonite and Mormon groups, along with other religious groups, came into the library to use the computers and get directions.
Later, a non-profit photo restoration organization opened a temporary office across the hall from us. We worked with them on getting the word out that water damaged photos can be restored. A lot of people used their services.
Austell lost a lot of residents, many faces familiar to me and the library staff, who never came back.
The library’s involvement with disaster recovery during the flood crisis lasted for several weeks, actually extending into months. It was a learning curve for the library staff as we dealt with people losing everything or most everything and trying to help them sort out their business and what needed to be done to resume life. It was a long process for everyone. Some are still dealing with the fallout of it.
Rhonda Lane is the branch manager of Powder Springs Library and continues to serve at Sweetwater Valley Library as acting manager.
Ten people lost their lives in the September 2009 floods in metro Atlanta. There were no fatalities in Cobb County. Although the initial official property damage estimate in Georgia was $250 million, analysts reportedly have increased the estimate to $500 million. The National Weather Service reported the high water marks at Sweetwater Creek were more than 20 feet above flood stage.
September is Library Card Sign-up Month – and National Preparedness Month, a campaign of the Federal Emergency Management Agency encouraging everyone to be ready for emergencies. Get a Cobb County Public Library System library card for your emergency preparedness kit. Local emergency preparedness resources include the Cobb County Emergency Management Agency and Cobb & Douglas Public Health.