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Cleanup costs from tornadoes huge for city, county

Last year’s Mother’s Day tornado has cost Bibb County and the city of Macon plenty of money — more than $9 million so far.

Macon has spent more than $4.2 million, and Bibb has spent more than $4.8 million on cleanup efforts.

If all goes according to plan, though, both governments will ultimately recoup most of those costs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will eventually pick up about three-fourths of the bill. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency is also scheduled to pay about 12 percent, leaving the remaining portion for the city and county.

So far, Bibb has received about $1.3 million in reimbursements from FEMA and GEMA, and insurance payouts to the county have covered $1.8 million in expenses, according to the Finance Department.

State and federal agencies have repaid Macon about $984,500 so far. Because the city is self-insured, it does not have insurance claims to make.

But getting federal reimbursements can be tricky, and it generally does not happen quickly.

FEMA officials charged with reviewing the requests are often out in the field surveying new disasters, said Tom Barber, Macon’s finance director, and Maggie Lopez, the police department administrator directly overseeing the effort, so the paperwork may sit on their desks for months before payments are approved.

“They basically told me it’s going to take a while ... and when they can get to us, they’ll get to us,” Lopez said. “It’s just a slow process that’s kind of out of our hands at this point.”

The locale, complexity of the submission and scope of the damage all play a role in the time it takes to process the requests, GEMA has said. GEMA distributes FEMA money as it is approved. In an extreme case, it took about 12 years to distribute all of the money for projects related to the Great Flood of ’94 that ravaged the midstate and other parts of Georgia.

Precise documentation is key, too: FEMA has already withheld about $104,000 from what it is paying the city.

That’s because following the ’94 floods, the agency said Macon had botched various reimbursement filings and may have double billed the federal agency for labor and other costs. The city was never able to find the records to dispute that claim, and it chose to have the money held back the next time it got help from FEMA.

’ROUND THE CLOCK EFFORT

Last year, before former President George W. Bush declared the county a disaster area and paved the way for the release of federal funds, both Macon and Bibb County laid out large amounts of cash up front to deal with the tornado’s immediate aftermath.

Officials said work had to begin before insurance or federal and state disaster reimbursements could be calculated.

“We had to go ahead and start making repairs to places,” said Steve Layson, Bibb’s chief administrative officer. “For several weeks, it took away from just about everything we normally do.”

Workers in the Bibb County Engineering and Public Works Department worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for about six weeks immediately following the storms. Workers hauled somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 cubic yards of debris during that time, County Engineer Ken Sheets said.

“It was rough,” he said.

The city and county both brought in private contractors to clear debris from public property and haul it away from residents’ land.

Commissioners hired Florida-based Crowder Disaster Recovery to troll the unincorporated area for downed trees and tapped Florida-based Solid Resources to monitor the effort. Macon picked Mobile, Ala.-based DRC Emergency Services for storm-related refuse collection in the city, and went in-house to provide the required monitoring staff.

The companies picked up tons of material, more than 495,000 cubic yards in the city alone. Lopez said initial estimates right after the storm had contemplated less than half that amount.

Land around Lake Tobesofkee was particularly pummeled by the storm. Arrowhead Park, the hardest hit, has remained closed for a year as county workers labor to remove debris, clear trees, repair damages and rebuild. Both Sandy Beach and Claystone parks were open by Independence Day last year.

Lake Tobesofkee’s revenues were down about $100,000 through April of this fiscal year, mostly due to the park’s closure, said Doug Furney, the lake’s director.

With the damage, though, came an opportunity. The county now is renovating Arrowhead, which has remained about the same since it opened in 1970.

Roads and bathhouses are being improved. New campgrounds will have wider and deeper spaces for visitors to park their recreational vehicles. New water and power lines will run underground to the camp area.

The improvements will allow the county to increase its fees at the park by $5 to $10 per night’s stay, officials have said. They hope to have the park open by Independence Day, which usually draws large crowds.

“I think there’s always a silver lining in everything,” Layson said. “No one was killed (in Bibb County), people now know how to look for severe weather, (and the storm) allowed us to do the things at Lake Tobesofkee that we needed to be doing. ... It brought the community together.”

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report. To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251. To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.

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