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Legacy of Racism Dams Up Post-Flood Effort in Georgia

By Eric Harrison
Los Angeles Times
ALBANY, Ga.

South-central Albany is a ghost town. Who knows where the people have gone, but their houses sit abandoned. For mile after desolate mile, the homes squat beneath a merciless sun, front doors gaping. Some have tumbled down, half swallowed by gigantic sinkholes.

Seven weeks after floods ravaged southwest Georgia and parts of Alabama and Florida, the herculean task of rebuilding in this, the hardest hit section of the hardest hit town, has hardly begun.

But as other communities along the Flint, Ocmulgee and Chattahoochee rivers pull together in the wake of what is being called Georgia's worst natural disaster, in Albany the legacy of racial separation and distrust has further torn people apart.

Many in the black community allege that city and county officials deliberately diverted water to their neighborhoods in order to save northern areas where affluent white people live. Local officials strongly deny this. But in an African-American community molded by a history of powerlessness and perceived neglect, the rumors spread with the relentlessness of the flood water.

"Immediately after the flood that's all people were talking about as they stood in lines," said Mary Young-Cummings, a lawyer and former state legislator who lost her home in the flood.

"What we want to know is, was the water manipulated in such a way that the more affluent neighborhoods were spared devastation to the detriment of the black community?" she said. "They got flooding, but we got devastated. And we got miles and miles and miles of devastation."

The U.S. Justice Department has launched an investigation of the way the flood was handled at the request of Jesse Jackson, who has visited Albany twice to hear citizen concerns. Last weekend, during his most recent visit, state and local police provided unusually heavy guard because of high racial tension and alleged death threats.

Overall, more than 5,000 families in the county were displaced by the flood, say officials, who predict the damage in the county will surpass $500 million.

A Georgia State University economist estimated last week that the flood would have a $1 billion impact in the state overall, including $500 million in damage to uninsured property and $200 million in agricultural losses. Throughout the region, a number of small towns that already were struggling to survive were nearly wiped off the map. In Montezuma, for example, virtually the entire downtown - 68 businesses - was under 10 feet of water at one point. Town officials there optimistically predict all but one or two businesses will reopen.

But in Albany, a city of 80,000 people, the devastation in the south-central section is so widespread that Young-Cummings fears many residents will not resettle there. That could lead to a weakening of black voting strength in a city where blacks make up a majority of the population (57 percent officially) but have only this year won a majority of the seats on the city commission.