ST. GEORGE, Ga. — Many residents who live on the Georgia side of the St. Marys River know what a disaster looks like. They can see it in their soaked and molding clothes, their sheetrock walls and kitchen cabinets piled on their lawns and the dirty high water marks up to their windows.
But if they want to see an official disaster, they have to look across the river to Florida. Residents on both sides of the river were hit by the same floodwaters from Tropical Storm Debby last month. But unlike Georgia, Florida experienced enough flood damage to meet the threshold for a presidential disaster declaration.
Gery and Wanda Davidson had a huge pile of belongings, interior walls and trim, furniture and some ruined personal items piled in their yard on St. Marys River Bluff Road in the southernmost tip of the little finger of Georgia that cuts into Florida. That was half of it, Gery Davidson said. Charlton County had already hauled off as much as was left.
“We had insurance,’’ he said. “We don’t know how good it is.”
The Davidsons like wild game and said they lost “everything from rattlesnake to hamburger’’ when their four freezers floated and turned over. Counting canned vegetables from their garden and food they bought, the Davidsons figure they lost 800 to 1,000 pounds of food.
A FEMA team that came by to do an assessment said it was the first claim ever filed on the property.
“Which tells you why I kind of felt secure here,’’ he said.
Wanda Davidson said she, too, was unafraid when they bought the property a few years ago. The flood caused by Tropical Storm Faye covered their porch in 2008, but didn’t get into their house.
“I felt good. They said that was the 100-year flood,’’ she said.
Then in the middle of the night on June 26 they were awakened by a neighbor, who told them to get out. The Davidsons stepped out of bed into water up to their knees. And they had to get her 84-year-old mother out, who had two broken bones in her foot.
“I had Mama on one arm and a toy poodle in the other,’’ she said.
Erwin Reeves, 80, knows how that feels. He had lived in Arlington, but after the neighborhood changed, he decided to make his weekend retreat on the St. Marys his full-time home.
“A fellah doesn’t always make the right decision,’’ he said.
The flood only compounded the misery of losing his wife in June.
“We buried her on the 23rd. Three days later, this happened to us,’’ he said.
Reeves said he had left the insurance to his wife and she hadn’t bought flood insurance. Volunteers from the Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief were at his home Thursday, gutting it.
Reeves said he won’t repair it.
“I’m going to sell this land and move back to Jacksonville,’’ he said.
His neighbor Tommy Long has his own harrowing story.
“We didn’t get anything out. The water was up to here in my garage,’’ he said, holding his hand to his chin.
He’s angry, as are a lot of others, that even though floodwaters rise just as high on each side of the river, the disaster declaration doesn’t follow the river.
“That’s the way it works with FEMA,’’ Camden County Emergency Management Director Mark Crews said. “It’s state by state.”
FEMA wasn’t even coming to Georgia, until, Crews said, “I raised a stink. We showed them everything we had, everything that could possibly be a claim.”
But the presidential disaster declaration that covered 23 counties in Florida, including Baker, Nassau and Duval, stopped at an invisible state line in the middle of the river, leaving out Charlton and Camden counties in Georgia.
Ken Davis, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said Georgia met the threshold for a local disaster of $3.39 in damages per capita but fell way short of the $1.35 per capita for a federal disaster. With Georgia’s population of 10 million, it didn’t come close, he said.
“The lines fall somewhere. I don’t think anybody will say that’s fair, but that’s the way the Stafford Act is written,’’ he said of the federal law that enables disaster relief.
In Camden County, where Flea Hill and John’s Fish Camp were flooded, the damage did not appear as severe as that in Florida. Still, some people who lived in rented mobile homes won’t be coming back.
The only hope is that Georgia residents will qualify for low interest loans from the Small Business Administration, which did its own assessment.
“We’re just waiting for that,’’ Charlton County Emergency Management Director Bruce Young said.
Crews said that won’t be much help for residents who can’t afford the payments.
“These folks are already struggling,’’ he said. “It’s a low interest loan, but it’s still a loan.”
Perhaps nobody in Charlton County could have used a disaster declaration as much as Kimberly and Joe Chauncey, who lived upstream from everyone else, at the very end of St. Marys River Bluff Road.
They also thought their two-story log house built on pilings would never flood worse than it did for Faye, but when they checked on their house they knew they would never live in it again.
The house was leaning with the current; the septic tank had floated up and sunk down across the property; the chimney appears to be leaning; and every board in the wood floors is warped and buckled. Some popped up a foot, she said.
The cabinets floated off the wall, the water heater toppled over, the pipes under the house broke free and their kitchen counters are buckled in U-shapes.
They lost their mattresses and a lot of clothes, but a lot of their belongings are replaceable, she said.
“What we lost most is our house,’’ Kimberly Chauncey said. “We cannot replace it due to financial reasons.”
She said her family would miss the good times living on the “beautiful St. Marys River,’’ that she said doesn’t look so good when it destroys your house.
They couldn’t afford flood insurance, she said, “but to look at it, you’d say there’s no way it could flood.”
Their bluff was hit so hard, however, that one of the survey markers washed out and slid five or six feet toward the river.
The Chaunceys are living with her mother in Florida.