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Black Alabamans say highway project caused major flooding, threatening their community

Feldhaar Christian/EyeEm/Getty Images

(SHILOH, Ala.) — Deep in rural southeastern Alabama, nestled in the nook of a highway just outside Elba, sits a tiny, close-knit community known locally as Shiloh. After generations of vibrant family life, the residents of this historically Black neighborhood fear it may not survive beyond them.

They point to a highway widening project they claim was designed poorly, draining flood water down to their properties and jeopardizing their families’ legacies of homeownership.

For over 150 years, properties owned by a few Black families in Shiloh have been passed down from generation to generation, along with a strong sense of pride.

“Everybody there is kin,” Timothy Williams, 47, told ABC News. Williams inherited his grandmother’s Shiloh home decades ago.

“As a little boy coming up, we would go from house to house to different family members,” he said. “We were taught to work together and to look after one another.”

Now, Williams runs a restaurant and a cleaning business in Shiloh, with help from his wife and daughters. He also preaches at a local church.

“We call Shiloh ‘God’s Country,’ because it’s in the Bible,” Williams said. “Shiloh is known for greatness.”

But in recent years, residents said life in Shiloh has felt far from godly or great.

After a 2018 expansion of U.S. Highway 84 from a small two-lane road to a major four-lane thoroughfare, Shiloh began to flood, residents said. The highway widening created runoff from the newly elevated road down to Shiloh’s homes, and with the flooding came frogs, snakes and extensive property damage like nothing the area had seen before, residents told ABC News.

For over five years, Williams and his neighbors have been embroiled in a battle with the Alabama Department of Transportation, which they claim turned the highway’s drainage pipes onto their backyards because they are Black.

“This is racism, there’s no other way around it,” Williams said. “And they don’t even want to correct the problem.”

ALDOT denies the project’s engineering had anything to do with race, or that it is causing flooding in Shiloh. But after Williams and his neighbors filed a complaint, the Federal Highway Administration launched a civil rights investigation in September 2022 into their claims of discrimination.

While the federal government investigates, Williams and his neighbors worry about their community’s ability to survive the regular flooding. Just about every time it rains, they say they watch their properties in fear.

“Shiloh today is just washing away,” Williams said.

A changing landscape

While its families have remained largely the same, Shiloh has seen geographic shifts in its lifetime. In 1934, U.S. 84 was extended through the area. The section running alongside Shiloh remained a narrow, two-lane stretch for nearly a century, while highway construction continued beyond it.

In the 1990s, ALDOT proposed widening U.S. 84. Officials held public forums about the planned construction, at which some residents expressed excitement about improved accessibility, while others feared damage to their land.

“Please don’t destroy our property!” one homeowner pleaded on a comment form at a July 1997 public hearing.

Later that year, FHWA approved the plans, noting that it had “determined that the proposed action will not increase flood risks,” according to documents obtained by ABC News. Still, ALDOT said measures would be taken to minimize floodplain impacts.

Coffee County Emergency Management Agency Director James Brown said he wasn’t involved with the project, but said residents’ flooding concerns are valid.

“When you go from a two-lane highway to a four-lane highway, it can really change the topography,” Brown told ABC News.

Construction around Shiloh began two decades after the plans were approved. Soon after, residents said the flooding began: During rainstorms, the new highway drainage pipes funneled water from the elevated road down towards Shiloh properties, overflowing a retention pond that builders had dug to hold the flood water.

Shiloh is not in a flood zone designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brown said, and even if FEMA revisited the area, it still would not be in a floodplain.

“We can just assume that most of this is runoff,” Brown said. “It’s coming off the highway.”

An ABC analysis of data from research group First Street Foundation, which models climate risk for government agencies and the public, found that several Shiloh properties had minimal risk of flooding due to natural causes like heavy precipitation or overflowing streams – less than a 1% chance over the next five years.

Based on environmental factors, Williams’ property should have only a 4% chance of flooding at least once in the next year, and a 15% chance over the next five years, the analysis found. But since U.S. 84 was widened, Williams says his land has been prone to flooding practically every time it rains.

According to National Weather Service data, the area has seen heavy rains more than 150 times since the construction was completed in March 2019.

Still, ALDOT told ABC News it “does not believe the widening project, which included measures to address drainage, has resulted in stormwater runoff that is greater than pre-construction conditions.” However, the agency said it has hired a consultant to look into improving the drainage system.

A recent engineering assessment commissioned by Williams’ homeowners insurance found that the cracks in his home’s brick exterior were caused or exacerbated by the flooding of the surrounding land.

“These conditions were due to the poor drainage characteristics on the left side of the property created by the construction of the ALDOT retention pond and drainage ditch in 2018,” the report read.

A report by another resident’s insurance provider reached similar conclusions.

An ABC News investigation found that ALDOT paid three residents $5,000 or less after they voiced concerns about the flooding. But the agency denied responsibility and in exchange for those payments placed restrictive covenants on their property deeds that permanently prevent them and future owners of their homes from suing the state.

Coffee County Commissioner Jimmy Jones said that during construction, the state engineering department had promised to resolve any issues in Shiloh after the road was complete. But now, he said, state officials tell him they can’t discuss the situation because of the settlements.

“The State of Alabama should be ashamed of how they are putting this water onto the residents of this community,” Jones said.

‘We’re losing everything’

Williams and his neighbors believe that ALDOT discriminated against them in its design of the highway drainage system. All the drains from the new stretch of highway empty out near homes in Shiloh, but not into farmland down the road that is owned by white residents.

“They turned the pipes on us,” Williams said. “Because we’re Black.”

Williams and his neighbor Willie Horstead, a 79-year-old veteran, laid out this claim in their complaint to the Federal Highway Administration.

Dr. Robert Bullard, an Elba native who is now a professor at Texas Southern University, said Black communities like Shiloh are particularly vulnerable when it comes to highway construction and flooding.

“It is not rocket science, it was political science that created these vulnerable communities, and it’s going to take science and resources and policy to correct that,” Bullard told ABC News.

“We do not believe any unfair treatment has occurred regarding the Shiloh Community, and certainly no discrimination against anyone,” ALDOT wrote in a statement to ABC News, adding that the agency is cooperating with FHWA’s ongoing civil rights investigation and “remains committed to working to address the concerns of the Shiloh community.”

But to the residents of Shiloh, it seems nobody is addressing their suffering.

“When the water comes down, it’s terrible and horrifying at times,” Horstead said.

Before construction, Horstead said his mobile home had no flooding problems. But now, he worries it may soon be ruined.

“If my home will be destroyed, I have nowhere to go,” he said.

Williams says his house is sinking due to the flooding, and his family worries that any day it could collapse into the ground completely.

“This situation has caused a lot of heartache and pain,” Williams’ daughter Melissa Williams said through tears. “And it was a situation that was caused by the state.”

Scenes From Shiloh & Its Surroundings

Beyond the immediate harm to Shiloh residents, the flooding threatens to end a century and a half of local Black homeownership.

“Generational wealth means a lot in our family,” Williams said.

Williams and his neighbors worry that if the flooding continues, there will be nothing left for their children to inherit.

“We’re losing everything,” Williams added, choking back tears. “We’ve taken our savings to fix everything, and we don’t have any more money… Our inheritance is just being washed away.”

While they wait for answers from the feds, Shiloh residents say they are dealing with frog infestations and poisonous snakes. They watch their land drown and their homes sink. And they mourn the generations of wealth and community building that may end with them.

“We don’t know what else to do,” Williams said. “Y’all have flooded us, and we can’t even live a normal life.”

 

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