J. Edward Bell was a young attorney when he stood on the banks of the Santee River in the 1980s to survey the land after an electric-generating hydroelectric plant was turned on in St. Stephen and nearly 60 waterfront properties flooded.

About 40,000 acres -- some of the most beautiful property in the state -- were now under water, devastating the farmers, poor and elderly who lived there, the Georgetown attorney said.

Houses and cabins floated away, vegetable gardens were ruined, nearly 3,000 boar drowned and timber rotted and toppled over.

The property still floods to this day.

The property owners in Georgetown, Berkeley and Williamsburg counties must have thought the rookie attorney was the only one who would take their case, he said, and he told them they couldn't fight the government. He took the case anyway.

On Friday, more than two decades later, U.S. District Judge Patrick Duffy ruled against Santee Cooper and for the property owners. He awarded a group of them, including a Mount Pleasant man and two sisters from Charleston, about $55 million plus 8 percent interest, compounded each year since the state-owned utility fired up the plant in 1985.

The total figure could reach in the hundreds of millions.

Several years ago, a judge ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the plant, had to reimburse Santee Cooper for any lawsuit payments, Bell said. So, in the end, the federal government will foot the bill.

"They (power company officials) haven't lost anything. They haven't learned anything, and they made millions of dollars doing it, all on the backs of the landowners," Bell said.

A spokeswoman and an attorney for Santee Cooper weren't available Friday night for comment.

It's the second judgment against the company over flooding of property downriver from the hydroelectric plant at Lake Moultrie. The plant's massive turbines generate electricity and push water down the river, causing it to rise, Bell said. The idea was to also cut the volume of water flowing into Charleston Harbor.

"When men try to take over God's work, they don't seem to get it right," the lawyer said.

About seven other landowners won a previous settlement for nearly $14 million, and another group of about a dozen land owners are awaiting their turn in court, Bell said. Some of Bell's clients dropped out or died years ago, fighting against the water and never seeing their due.

Friday's victory for one group is bittersweet, Bell said.

"Finally, its over (for them)," he said. "The amount of money really is very small when you think of something over 25 years."