Georgia Today: Hurricane Idalia hits Georgia; Giuliani defamation suit; land seizure in Hancock
On the Wednesday August 30th edition of Georgia Today: Hurricane Idalia is making its way through parts of Georgia, we'll have details; A federal judge holds former Trump attorney Rudy Gialiani liable in a defamation lawsuit filed by two Georgia election workers; And the story of Georgia family fighting to keep land that has been in the family for generations from being seized in the name of commerce and development.
Peter Biello: Welcome to the Georgia Today podcast from GPB News. Today is Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. I'm Peter Biello.
Hurricane Idalia is making its way through parts of Georgia, we'll have details; a federal judge holds former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani liable in a defamation lawsuit filed by two Georgia election workers; and the story of Georgia family fighting to keep land that has been in the family for generations from being seized in the name of commerce and development.
These stories and more are coming up on this edition of Georgia Today.
Peter Biello: Hurricane Idalia barreled into south Georgia this morning. Georgia Emergency management officials say the storm entered the state as a Category 3 storm and since has dropped into a Category 1. Gov. Brian Kemp says even as the storm weakens, people still need to take precautions.
Brian Kemp: It's a dangerous storm. People need to prepare. They need to be ready when it's coming through, and either, you know, move a county or two up. But they have the ability to do that. If not, make sure they're in a secure location, watch out for downed power lines."
Peter Biello: In Savannah, officials there expect to feel its heaviest impacts between 5 and 10 p.m. tonight. GPB's Benjamin Payne reports from the coast.
Benjamin Payne: Savannah is bracing for dangerously strong winds and heavy rain that could lead to street flooding. Speaking at a Wednesday morning press conference,Savannah Mayor Van Johnson warned residents to not be complacent, even as Idalia loses strength as it approaches the Georgia coast.
Van Johnson: We have to take this seriously. The key here is: Don't be out on the streets If you don't have to be on the streets. Stay home, sit down somewhere and just ride this thing out.
Benjamin Payne: Savannah City manager Jay Melder warns of extended power outages and says that once the worst of Vidalia passes, city crews be working overnight to clear debris. For GPB news, I'm Benjamin Payne in Savannah.
Peter Biello: Forecasters expect 3 to 5 feet of storm surge to coincide tonight with a higher than normal high tide amplified by a full moon. Dock workers were busy tying down boats and the Georgia Ports Authority suspended vessel operations just south of Savannah. McIntosh County Emergency Management director Ty Poppel says Idalia will be the first hurricane since the late 1800s to bring sustained hurricane force winds to the county.
Ty Poppel: We've had a lot of debris damage from Irma and Matthew. I mean, we've had some winds come through, but nothing hurricane sustained. We have prepared as best we can, and we have advised everybody now to shelter in place.
Peter Biello: The Georgia Emergency Management Agency has opened ten hurricane shelters across south Georgia. Ware County Emergency management director Jonathan Daniels says there are three shelters open in Waycross Manor and Millwood for anyone who may need them.
Jonathan Daniels: If they live in substandard housing or a mobile home or something that they don't feel comfortable, they can go into one of these safe shelters, you know, and ride the storm out.
Peter Biello: Outside the town of Quitman near the Florida border, Karen Seward said her home in the middle of 44 acres of pine forest lost power around 10:00 a.m.. The wind was taking down pine trees.
Karen Seward: We just had another pine tree go down. My husband saw one drop and I just heard the second one drop about ten feet from our pond.
Peter Biello: For the latest developments on Hurricane Idalia, visit GPB.org/storms.
Peter Biello: As we mentioned, the moon is exacerbating the high tides and the flooding they can cause. The moon tonight is a rare super blue moon. GPB's Amanda Andrews has more on what that is.
Amanda Andrews: Supermoons can create higher gravitational pull, resulting in King Tides and that, combined with expected rain, could increase flooding in parts of coastal Georgia. The average month sees just one full moon, according to Georgia Tech astronomer Jim Sowell. And the second full moon will look different.
Jonathan Daniels: It's a supermoon because it's larger in appearance than average. The moon's orbit around the Earth is not circular, and so it's actually at its closest to the earth this month.
Amanda Andrews: NASA reports the next super blue moon won't be for another 14 years. The moon will reach its peak at 9:36 p.m. For GPB News, I'm Amanda Andrews.
Peter Biello: A federal judge is holding former President Donald Trump's former attorney, Rudy Giuliani, liable in a defamation lawsuit brought by two Georgia election workers to Fulton County. Poll workers Ruby Freeman and Shay Moss claimed Giuliani falsely accused them of participating in fraud during the 2020 election. U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell today ordered Giuliani to pay more than $130,000 in lawyers fees and other costs. Giuliani admitted last month that he made false public comments about the mother and daughter election workers.
Peter Biello: A 34-year-old man who is being held at a problem-plagued Atlanta jail died after he was taken to a hospital over the weekend. He was the fourth person to die in Fulton County custody in the span of a month. The Fulton County Sheriff's Office said today that a jail officer found Samuel Lawrence unresponsive in his cell on Saturday. Last month, the U.S. Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation into conditions at the county jail, citing violence, filthy conditions and multiple deaths.
Peter Biello: Georgia Power has agreed to spare the utility's customers $2.6 billion of the $10 billion that it's costing the company to build two new nuclear reactors at Georgia's plant Vogtle. If the state's Public Service Commission approves the agreement announced today, the average residential customers monthly bill would increase by nearly $9.
Peter Biello: A South Korean company plans to build a $72 million factory in Georgia to make parts for electric vehicles, hiring more than 140 workers. Daesol Ausys announced its plans yesterday to build a factory in West Point. It will build luggage boards and covers for compartments and electric vehicles. The company's corporate family has two other factories in the same industrial park supplying a nearby Kia plant. It's another in a wave of electric vehicle suppliers announcing plans in Georgia after Hyundai said in 2022 that it would build a $5.5 billion dollar plant to assemble electric vehicles and batteries near Savannah.
Peter Biello: Imagine land that has been in your family for generations. Not only has it fed you, it's paved the way for educating you and your children. Now imagine that a business says they'll take some of your family land in the name of commerce and economic development. What would you do? GPB's Grant Blankenship tells the story.
Grant Blankenship: When I meet Mark Smith at his home on Shoals Road in Hancock County, he's been wrestling with that question for a year and a half, shelling field peas all morning.
Mark Smith: Oh, picking peas. Yes, zipper peas, purple hulls..
Grant Blankenship: Farming is a lot of what Smith does these days, now that he and his wife are both retired from teaching. They both had military careers before that. And, he explains, farming is what generations of Smiths before him have done on this same land.
Mark Smith: My grandfather bought this place in 1926.
Grant Blankenship: He bought it from a white family, the Garrets, who still live nearby.
Mark Smith: Talking about Jim Crow [era], and he was a black man. And I think he wanted $2500 for it. He didn't have 2500 bucks.
Grant Blankenship: But he could farm. He paid in cotton and later passed the land on to his son, Mark Smith's father.
Mark Smith: He traded trees for tuition. He had cows. He sold cows for tuition. He grew vegetables just like I'm doing now for tuition. He paid for all of that with this land.
Grant Blankenship: That meant six advanced degrees, one for Smith and each of his five siblings. A kind of upward mobility still rare for black families in this part of the South. And from this patch of Hancock County, Mark and Jan Smith sent their three sons to college, too.
Mark Smith: My baby son, he graduated University of Georgia.
Grant Blankenship: But now the Smiths and others see a threat. It started with a letter Mark Smith's wife, Jan, keeps in a manila envelope.
Jan Smith: "I am sending you this letter because some of your property will be required as a right away for the new project."
Grant Blankenship: Not far away live Sally and Don Garrett. Don's grandfather sold land to Mark Smith's grandfather, and the land nursed the Garretts too—through two World Wars.
Don Garrett: Two World Wars, A 1918 flu epidemic...
Grant Blankenship: And they got the same letter in the mail.
Don Garrett: "We will require," you know, "part of your property."
Grant Blankenship: Don Garrett called the phone number at the bottom.
Don Garrett: And [she] said basically, "Well, if you don't sell it to us, we'll use eminent domain to just take it."
Grant Blankenship: Eminent domain is the power granted to government to take private property for public use in Georgia. It's used by public utilities like power companies and the state agency that builds highways. And as Ben Tarbutton III correctly points out...
Ben Tarbutton III: We are a railroad chartered by the state of Georgia, and railroads have the power of eminent domain.
Grant Blankenship: Tarbutton is president of the Washington County based Sandersville Railroad. The letter the Smiths and the Garretts received was on his letterhead, and what he wants to do is to build a short railroad to take granite from a quarry on Shoals Road out to larger regional rail lines and from there to the world. But first he needs land from the Smiths, the Garretts and a bunch of their neighbors.
Ben Tarbutton III: We made an offer, and that offer is a very competitive market-based offer.
Grant Blankenship: Garrett says this isn't about money.
Don Garrett: Well his 'fair market value' isn't too fair, you know.
Grant Blankenship: It's about family. And the same is true for the Smiths.
Jan Smith: You're going to take and run a train crisscross 600 acres, a property that has been in a family for 99 years. If that's not audacity.
Grant Blankenship: The most recent plan misses Mark and Jan Smith, but it still affects Mark's brother, Blaine. He doesn't want to sell either. Tarbutton says he's left with one option.
Ben Tarbutton III: I don't want to be in the conversation where we're, you know, having to condemn people. That's not who we are. But if no one talks to me, I don't have a choice.
Grant Blankenship: But does he have the right? Bill Maurer says no. Maurer is an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm specializing in eminent domain and representing Shoals Road residents against the railroad.
Bill Maurer: My interpretation of their argument is essentially that your being a public utility is like being pregnant. You're either a public utility or you're not.
Grant Blankenship: But Georgia Law also says.
Bill Maurer: You have to be acting as a public utility when you use this power.
Grant Blankenship: Providing a public good, something everyone needs, like electricity or drinking water. Tarbutton, the railroad president says...
Ben Tarbutton III: The railroads are providing a service. It's commerce.
Grant Blankenship: But Bill Maurer, the attorney, sees a couple of companies which stand to make a lot of money.
Bill Maurer: That's not a public use.
Grant Blankenship: Allen Haywood is head of industrial development for Hancock County and the mayor of Sparta, the county seat. He wants the rail spur in what's often cited as the most impoverished county in the state.
Allen Haywood: We've got to have some help here. Well, I mean, because we need the jobs we need we need something to keep the kids here when they graduate. We got nothing!
Grant Blankenship: Tarbutton and the railroad promised at least 12 new jobs with salaries offering five times the local per capita income. What Allen Haywood really hopes, is that it will lead to an industrial recruitment boom. By law, it's Georgia's five-member Public Service Commission who will decide who is right. Meanwhile, from his kitchen where he's bagging up field peas, Mark Smith remembers the words of his father.
Mark Smith: Don't give the land away. Don't sell it, and don't let anybody take it.
Grant Blankenship: The PSC will hear arguments about the Hancock County Rail spur in November. For GPB News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Sparta.
Peter Biello: In sports, Marcell Ozuna hit his 30th homer. Charlie Morton threw six innings of one run ball, and the Atlanta Braves beat the Colorado Rockies 3 to 1 last night for their 16th win in 21 games with the win. Major League best Atlanta improved to 86 and 45. Two fans who ran onto the field at the Braves Rockies game on Monday and made contact with Atlanta star Ronald Acuna, Jr. are facing charges of trespassing and disturbing the peace. The misdemeanor charges against the fans, 21 and 23-year-old Denver residents were outlined in arrest affidavits released by the Denver Police Department. The men were ordered to appear in court Sept. 27, 2023 The arrest affidavits did not say why the fans ran onto the field. The Braves and the Rockies play the third and final game of the series tonight before the Braves head to L.A. for a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Peter Biello: And in basketball, the Atlanta Dream beat the Phoenix Mercury 94 to 76. Cheyenne Parker put up 25 points for the dream, and Brittney Griner put up 16 for the Phoenix Mercury. Atlanta is tied with Minnesota for sixth in the WNBA standings. Phoenix was eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday, snapping a streak of ten straight seasons reaching the postseason.
And that does it for this edition of Georgia Today. If you want to learn more about any of these stories, visit GPB.org/news. And for the latest on the storm, don't forget to visit GPB.org/storms. If you haven't yet subscribed to this podcast, take a moment and do it now. We'll be back in your feed with more of the latest news tomorrow afternoon. If you've got feedback, we'd love to hear from you. The best way to reach us is by email. The address is GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. I'm Peter Biello. Thanks again for listening. Stay dry and we'll see you tomorrow.
For more on these stories and more, go to GPB.org/news.
Read the latest updates on the Georgia indictments here.