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Flood May Be Last Straw for Troubled Copper Town

March 1, 1990

McCAYSVILLE, Ga. (AP) _ Federal officials aren’t getting many takers for the disaster loans they brought to McCaysville after a devastating flood, leading one merchant to say with dread, ″This might be a ghost town.″

″Everybody’s leaving. Nobody’s rebuilding,″ said the merchant, William Jabaley, whose family has owned the town’s only department store since 1921.

Government spokesman Guido Pettinelli said merchants are taking ″a poor attitude″ in refusing the low-interest loans. The merchants, already suffering hard times before the flood, say they couldn’t make the payments.

Mid-February flooding caused damage estimated at more than $5.5 million in Fannin County, which includes McCaysville, and $5.3 million in Polk County, Tenn., which includes McCaysville’s neighbor, Copperhill.

The floods came during two weeks of tornadoes and other storms that prompted President Bush to declare disaster areas in 13 counties in Georgia, 24 in Alabama and two in Tennessee.

McCaysville and Copperhill especially suffered because they already had severe economic problems. The two towns have one industry - Tennessee Chemical Co., a copper mining company that once employed more than 2,000 residents but now only 400.

In McCaysville, a town of about 400 people, John Jabaley & Sons is the only downtown store doing steady business since the Toccoa River covered the town with about 8 feet of water.

Jabaley is having a flood sale. The mud-covered merchandise, from jeans to soaked leather shoes, isn’t going quickly, but when it’s gone, he’s closing the store.

″You think you’re seeing a lot of merchandise here, but this is 15 to 20 percent of what I had. The rest went down the river,″ the 70-year-old merchant explained. ″People bring me an odd shoe now and then they found on the riverbank, and I see if it matches.″

Jabaley said he lost $150,000 to $200,000 in the flood. The business had no flood insurance, said his sister, Anne Jabaley Isaac.

Most merchants could not afford flood insurance in this Tennessee Valley Authority flood plain, said Jerry Whitehead, who added that he may not reopen his Mountain Adventure Rafting Co., a popular spot for tourists to rent rafts and hear live music on a deck overlooking the river.

″I did pretty good the first year or two, but I never imagined this,″ Whitehead said. ″When we opened the windows after the flood, the water came out and carried all my equipment right down the river. I watched it.″

The Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a center at McCaysville Elementary School to take applications for aid, most of which came from homeowners. Some were eligible for temporary housing.

Business owners were disappointed to discover that aid comes in the form of loans. ″There are no grants for businesses,″ said Dave Moffet, a state disaster aid official.

″They’re not going to get too many takers,″ Jabaley said. ″Most people already had loans out on their businesses and they can’t afford a double burden.″

Pettinelli, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thinks the merchants should give the loans a chance.

″The program works when our people know their ability to pay,″ he said, adding that most loans available are low interest and long-term. ″There’re other ways we can help, too. There’s an IRS agent to help write off the losses on 1989 returns, and farm programs here.″

Mayor Barbara Thomas said McCaysville’s precarious economy would have been complicated even by a minor flood.

″It wouldn’t have taken much because they were already so worried,″ she said. ″Rebuilding will be utterly impossible if we don’t get good federal assistance. But hopefully none of them will give up completely.″

Jabaley says he has no choice but to give up.

″Just take those, I don’t need you to pay,″ he told one customer, owner of a nearby cafe who was looking for rolls of paper. ″I’ll bum a cup of coffee off of you one of these days. ...

″Nobody has much money with their own troubles,″ he explained with tears in his eyes. ″I’m blessed really, I have a home to come home to. I can’t imagine people who don’t even have a bed to sleep in.″

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