Rain came in September and it stayed for nine days, filling the grooves and fissures on the crust of North Georgia. Eighteen miles west of Atlanta, in Austell, Sweetwater Creek became Sweetwater River, then Sweetwater Lake. The water smelled like petroleum. It turned houses into submarines.
Near the lower end of Jones Road, after a long night of inspecting chickens at a slaughterhouse, Debra Swinehart slept on a memory foam mattress in the redbrick duplex she rented with her husband, Deshon Lucious, and their dogs, Shakita and Mozart. He called her out of bed. Water was creeping up the road.
They grabbed what they could—a television, two computers, clothes from the dryer—and fled with the dogs for higher ground. When they came home three days later, after spending their second anniversary in a refugee camp at a Lutheran church, a red rubber ball was lodged in a tree in their front yard. The floodwater had left it there, nearly fifteen feet off the ground.
“This is horrible,” Debra said, surveying the living room in her raincoat and brown rubber boots. The refrigerator lay on its side in the muck on the wooden floor, next to an antique table whose top had been warped into the shape of a Pringle. Two red high heels lay by the soiled couch, near a VHS copy of a movie called The Pagemaster. Debra slipped and began falling. Deshon grabbed for her hips, but not fast enough. Her knees hit the floor.
“Very slippery,” she said. Just before moving here, in August, they had canceled their renters insurance. Deshon was between jobs. Debra has osteoarthritis and degenerative bone disease, which is why they had spent $800 on the special mattress now logged with sour floodwater. Her wedding band and engagement ring had been swept off the bedside table, and now she could not find them.
“Oh!” she said. “My Bible!” The word of the Lord was nearly washed off the pages. “My grandmother. She gave this to me.”
Most of their possessions would be thrown away. Debra had seen too much bacteria through her job at the chicken plant to risk dealing with sewage-tainted floodwater. They would save only the things that could be boiled or bleached: glassware, silverware, food sealed in aluminum cans.
Debra shoved open the door of the second bedroom, where the water had left an open book straddling the blade of a ceiling fan.
“Oh my God!” she said. “It completely flipped the TV!”
Deshon pulled her away. “You can’t step on anything in there,” he said. “It’s waterlogged. You’re going to slip. You’ve had back surgery.”
Outside in the brilliant sunshine, just after noon on Thursday, Deshon and Debra finished loading their few rescued possessions into the bed of a borrowed pickup truck. Their landlord said they could move to a place in Marietta, but it had no washer or dryer. They would sleep on cots again that night, at the Lutheran church. Deshon was going to check on the dogs. Debra planned to take a shower.
“Trust me,” she said. “I’m going to sanitize myself completely.”
They left the clock on the wall in the house. It would never tell time again. It stopped at 8:04 and four seconds, on Monday night, September 21, when Sweetwater Lake came pouring in.
Photograph by Caroline Kilgore