Hunter Hills residents are all too familiar with floodwater creeping into their homes. But even longtime resident Michele McCord was taken aback when a severe thunderstorm brought a torrential downpour on Sept. 14, turning streets into streams that quickly flooded her basement.
McCord was sitting at home that afternoon when water began rushing in. Within minutes, her water heater and washer and dryer were submerged — potentially a more than $3,000 loss.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me,” she said. “I started crying like, ‘Lord, what’s going on? What did I do?’ It was that bad.”
She was not alone. While the storm affected much of Atlanta, the heaviest downpour occurred in the areas around the Atlanta University Center, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and the predominantly Black neighborhoods farther west. Some areas received over 3 inches of rain in only 2 hours, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Laura Belanger, turning parking lots into shallow lakes and prompting over 30 water rescues.
The flooding that Black communities faced was a consequence of systemic inequities — they’re disproportionately located in low-lying areas with dated sewage systems and limited greenspace to absorb rainwater. Though the chance of a rainfall event like this is only 4% in a given year in Atlanta, these inequities create a compounded disaster — something Belanger said could “happen again next week.”
“In portions of downtown Atlanta, there’s a combination of things at play, like a high percentage of impervious surfaces, aging stormwater infrastructure, more development, and more people,” Belanger said, leaving Black areas highly vulnerable to flash floods.
The epicenter of the storm, which struck the AUC, submerged dorm rooms at Clark Atlanta University and swept cars away. The heavy rainfall threat, unforeseen by NWS forecasters, caught students and residents off guard due to the absence of a flash flood warning.
Clark Atlanta freshman Pyton Westbrook was in her first-floor dorm room when the building started to flood.
“My roommate’s friend came knocking on the door saying there’s a flood going on in the basement, and some girl hurt herself,” Westbrook said. “I was just really confused about what had happened. There was a lot going on.”
Race-based flood disparities are not unique to Atlanta. Across the U.S., flooding disproportionately harms Black neighborhoods because Black communities have historically been relegated to floodplains — or lower-lying land next to rivers or streams — due to housing segregation and redlining, said Maya Carrasquillo, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
Hunter Hills, which is about 88% Black, became one of the first planned African American communities in Atlanta during the mid-1900s, when racial segregation and discrimination were pervasive. Hunter Hills, among other low-lying Black communities, have dated combined sewer systems, which collect sewage, rainwater, and industrial wastewater through the same pipes. When these sewage systems overflow during heavy rainfall events, Black residents are left exposed to wastewater surging into their neighborhoods, homes, and nearby bodies of water.
Proctor Creek, which runs through Hunter Hills, has a history of water quality problems, including stormwater runoff and sewage overflows. Spillovers of sewage-infused stormwater in Atlanta have been associated with a 9% increase in emergency room visits for gastrointestinal illnesses a week after exposure.
“We’re talking about severe public health challenges,” said Carrasquillo. “Because now there’s exposure to all types of bacterial waste that can actually harm people and actually make people sick.”
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which experienced extreme flooding on Sept. 14, sits in the headwaters of the Proctor Creek watershed. Residents were once concerned that the construction and operation of the stadium would further compromise the creek’s water quality and exacerbate flooding issues in the area, said Carrasquillo. That’s particularly concerning given residential areas are downhill from the stadium.
“Now we’re seeing where the water goes when it flows downstream,” Carrasquillo added.
If global warming persists, urban and rural Black communities across the South will see at least a 20% increase in flood risk by 2050, according to a study published in Nature. But regardless of climate change, the city’s rapid population growth is stressing its stormwater infrastructure and exacerbating flood risks.
“You’re going to see more flooding, even if it’s not to the extent that you saw [on Sept. 14], because the system is at its capacity with so many more residents beyond what the system was originally designed for,” Carrasquillo said. “It is unacceptable that our stormwater systems are so aged and that the city is not doing much about it.”