Townsfolk Face Water, Fine Print A Rush For Flood Insurance, Then They Hold Their Breath.

Posted: July 12, 1994

BAINBRIDGE, Ga. — Ben P. Lee stood in the sandy soil skirting his new 5,000-square-foot brick Colonial home yesterday and squinted out toward the dirty floodwaters that were 150 yards away and creeping closer every hour.

A certified public accountant, Lee knew the math was simple. If the roiling water invades his $350,000 home before midnight tonight, he must cover the entire loss. But if the onslaught strikes one minute later, Lee, by a stroke of luck any Georgia preacher would consider divine, will be saved.

At 12:01 a.m. tomorrow, Lee's flood insurance takes effect.

"We knew that floods were heading south, and last Friday we rushed out and bought insurance," said Lee, a handsome man whose eyes drooped in dark circles as he fidgeted with a roll of utility tape. "There was a rush on. The agent's office was packed. We bought it, but there's a five-day grace period. Oh, I just need to make it until midnight (tonight)."

All along the Flint River yesterday, hundreds of people like Lee were fighting both nature and the fine print of the insurance industry. They circled and sandbagged their homes and then walked to the cusp of the torrent in a painfully slow water torture that has gripped much of Georgia the last nine days. The bulging waters - with the precision of a road map - have smashed one town after another in their sluggish, deadly trek to the Gulf of Mexico.

The floods, which began with the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto, have claimed 28 lives. More than 175,000 people remain without clean drinking water, and 400,000 acres of crops have been destroyed, along with hundreds of roads and bridges and thousands of homes and businesses. One of the hardest- hit towns, Albany, about 50 miles north of here, watched some of its evacuated 30,000 residents return yesterday to waterlogged homes.

More than 40 counties in Georgia, Florida and Alabama have been designated federal disaster areas, which allows flood victims to apply for federal grants and loans. Georgia Gov. Zell Miller said the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was forming an anti-fraud task force in the counties affected by the flooding.

Bainbridge, a city of 11,000 and the last sizable town the floods will engulf as they twist toward the Florida Panhandle, received some good news yesterday. The river had been expected to crest tomorrow at 46 feet - more than 20 feet above flood level. But new predictions by the National Weather Service say the river will crest a foot lower, at 45 feet, and not until Thursday.

Either way, Lee is one worried man.

"We moved into the house April 30," said Lee, standing with his twin sons, John and Josh, under the oak and dogwoods that shade his home of 100- year-old bricks. "I built much of it myself. We took a plan from Southern Living.

"We've moved all the furniture to the second floor. We were supposed to have new furniture delivered this week, but the floods closed the roads and it couldn't get down from Atlanta."

Lee and his neighbors never considered flood insurance because the flood plain is marked at 108 feet above sea level, and his home - as he has meticulously calculated - is 117.43 feet above sea level. Georgia is more accustomed to the sun parching water supplies than floods. Even the state's largest insurer, State Farm, carries flood coverage for only 8,500 of its 500,000 homeowner policies.

The hysteria for insurance - which sold for between $400 and $1,000 a year - set in Thursday, when more than 350 people in Bainbridge stormed five insurance agencies. "We wrote 60 policies since Thursday," said Bill Reynolds, owner of Reynolds-Jeffords Insurance Agency. "There was a big-time panic. It was like a doctor's office in here. We had people sign in. I made them sign a form telling them that there was a five-day grace period so they couldn't come back on me later."

For some of those who bought insurance, the floodwaters came before the grace period ended. "One of our employees, Celeste Sonner, bought insurance on Thursday, but her home was completely flooded by Sunday," said Lucile Shirley of Callahan Insurance. "And if that's not bad enough, they think her 95-year-old mother had a stroke. So she had to go to Tallahassee and leave her flooded home behind."

There was quirky fascination for many lower- and middle-income people yesterday when they described the well-to-do rushing out for insurance and how many mansions and finely landscaped lawns had been thrashed. In many towns above Bainbridge, much of the destruction from the floods was done to families that lived in trailers and bungalows. But here, the floods have spread misery to all economic classes.

"Yes, the ritzy homes got it, too," said Bobbie Blalock, whose husband works for the now-flooded municipal sewage treatment plant. She unfurled a map of Bainbridge and pointed to fluorescent pink patches representing overrun neighborhoods. "Now this here is Lake Douglass. You can't get a home for under $100,000. Now right here lives Dr. Burke, our gynecologist. And right here lives Mr. Martin, he's in big finance. I know all this because I deliver the local paper, the Post Searchlight."

A breathless woman, Blalock sighed when she looked at the pink and pondered the doom as she sat near some cots and fruit at the Port City Church of God. ''This is not spring water coming down to wash your stuff. This is yuck and mud. There's dead animals in it, and it smells."

Outside on Route 84, dump trucks and national guardsmen speeded toward the Vigoro Industries fertilizer plant, where an 11-foot wall of clay and sandbags was being built to protect a 200-foot-tall tank containing nine million pounds of anhydrous ammonia. The ammonia is a toxic substance that turns to a dangerous vapor when mixed with water. The Vigoro plant has been the center of concern since late last week, when Bainbridge began bracing for the river's crest.

With the impending crest just a couple of days away, one local radio station broadcast nonstop flood advisories. The Post Searchlight, which usually comes out twice a week, began publishing a daily one-sheet "Flood Update" issue. More than 2,800 people have been evacuated as Red Cross shelters opened on both sides of the Flint.

Rising from the shelter at the Jones Wheat Elementary School came the sweetest voice many had heard for days.

It roared up - brassy and strong - from the throat of Marjoree Rogers, a 51-year-old flood victim, who saw the old upright Hamilton piano in the school cafeteria and just felt like playing. "Soon and very soon," she sang, as homeless children and Red Cross workers swayed, "we are going to see the King. Hallelujah . . . Should there be a river we must cross, God will supply all the strength that we need."

Rogers' fingers worked the keys strong, then gentle, as her eyes closed and sweat rolled back through her black hair twisted in gray. She stopped and people clapped. "I'm an up person," said Rogers, who started singing when she was 6 in the choir at the Freewill Baptist Church 21 miles from here. ''And when you put me with this many people, I just got to sing. You can sing anybody out of their dumps. . . . I'm not worried I had to leave my home. That's just stuff; I got the most important thing out: me."

Allen Borecky, who came from Pine Bluff, Ark., to cook for the Red Cross shelter, got all excited when Rogers sat at the piano. "She don't even read music," he said of his new friend. "She just plays it by ear. She is very good and has a beautiful voice that has brought a little joy here."

Rogers tapped the keys, her voice lifting through "Amazing Grace."

Back on Lake Douglass Road, Lee did some more calculating.

The floodwaters are expected to rise to 116.5 feet above sea level. His home sits at 117.43 feet. That gives him roughly 11 inches to spare.

"You can see," he said, "how borderline I am."

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