Vidalia: ‘We fought the flood and won’

Published 12:04 am Saturday, May 19, 2012

VIDALIA — The Mississippi River — to Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland — is like the weather. You think you can control it, but you can’t.

So last year when the river began rising at an alarming rate and 500-year-record levels were being predicted, Copeland said there was no master plan the city could turn to — staying one step ahead was the only option.

“I’ve lived here all my life, and we’ve seen some flooding, but this was a 500-year record flood. How do you prepare for that?” Copeland said. “But what we saw was a tremendous effort of teamwork and organization by a number of state, federal and local organizations all coming together to save our city.

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“Every time I think back and look at the pictures, I’m in total amazement of what we were able to accomplish in that short amount of time.”

After several trips to the drawing board, Copeland and the city put all their eggs in Hesco baskets — instant levees provided by the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness — to protect four buildings on the Riverfront that are on city property.

The ability to surround the riverfront buildings with the Hesco baskets in only three days is the main reason Copeland said the sand-filled baskets will remain an option for the city if the water rises again.

“It took us three months to take them down, but it was just incredible how fast we were able to surround all those buildings,” Copeland said. “To my understanding, they’ve improved the Hesco baskets system since then to where you can get them up and down quicker, so that’s definitely an option if something happens again.”

The Riverfront flood battle cost the city $2.5 million in flood prevention and recovery.

But the city has received $952,325 of reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and hopes to receive the remainder of it’s $1.8 million eligible funds by the end of the year, said City Manager Ken Walker.

FEMA will reimburse only 75 cents for every dollar the town spent.

But spending $2.5 million was no comparison to what could have been lost, Copeland said.

“We saved 400 jobs and $75 million of investments on the Riverfront,” Copeland said. “So was it worth it? I think so.

“It did put us in a financially tight situation, and we understood that, but we’ll get through that once we get those funds back.”

After the city receives all its reimbursement funds, Copeland said the next goal is examining infrastructure.

“Our primary objective is to receive funds that we’ve already spent, and then we’ll work to ensure our infrastructure on the Riverfront and throughout the city is solid.”

And even though this summer won’t be as hectic as last summer, Copeland said there’s always something to keep him up at night.

“Well we’ve been having to move all our stuff into the new municipal complex and get organized here, so it hasn’t been too slow around here, but nowhere near what it was last year,” Copeland said. “There’s always something to keep us busy around here.”

Looking back on the entire situation, from start to finish, Copeland said it’s definitely a time that he will never forget.

“It’s hard to look back at the pictures and think about it because those were some trying times for all of us,” Copeland said. “But other than moving faster, I don’t know how much we could of improved it any more than we did, because we saved the businesses and the water didn’t come over the levees.

“We fought the flood and won.”