Editorial News

When Alberto came calling in ’94

My mind immediately traveled back about a quarter-century when weather forecasters announced in May that the 2018 hurricane season’s first named storm, Alberto, was trying to stir up some trouble in the Gulf.
I didn’t realize until recently that the names of hurricanes and tropical storms are recycled every six years (unless one is retired), so I was surprised that Alberto had returned. This season’s debut storm didn’t cause much of a fuss, but the one that came bearing that name five cycles back, in 1994, was a horse of a different color.
I spent the July 4, 1994 holiday inside, as Tropical Storm Alberto — which never reached hurricane strength and had actually weakened to a tropical depression — stalled over southwest Georgia and began dumping a deadly deluge on the community in which I lived.
When I went to bed that night, there was plenty of talk by weather experts about the ongoing rain, but no indication of when it would let up or what was to come in the following days.
The next morning, as I was driving to work at the local newspaper, I got my first (and almost last) taste of an upcoming news story that would be one of the biggest in the paper’s history. Less than a half-mile from my destination, as I slowed for a traffic signal in a low area, a virtual wall of water swept across the hood of my car and formed a three-feet-deep pool in the street.
There were no cell phones back then, and I couldn’t find a pay phone, so I climbed out and walked the rest of the way to work. Reports had already started coming in by the time I got there of massive amounts of water running through the city and of major structural damage.
One of our reporters was on vacation, so I — riding with our publisher, since my car was pretty much underwater — and the other headed out to check into the reports, still unaware of the scope of the disaster.
We were awestruck by what we discovered. Numerous earthen pond dams had been breached overnight as rain, rain and more rain fell on the area. Before the storm finally began to dissipate, it had inundated us with 24.5 inches of precipitation over a 30-hour period.
The swift-running waters carved a huge hole beneath the twin viaducts that served as the southern and westward gateways to our city; the swollen Flint River blocked major access on the eastern end of the county, and the flooded Ocmulgee River finished isolating us from the rest of the world by swamping the northern route.
Then the death reports started coming in. A woman and her infant child were killed when their car was washed from a city street. An elderly woman drowned when flood waters submerged the home in which she and her husband, who survived by climbing a tree and remaining there for several days, had lived for decades. A tractor-trailer driver died when his truck ran off a washed-out bridge and into a creek.
And on it went.
Meanwhile, the water overwhelmed an area cemetery, washing more than 400 coffins from their resting places and sending them floating through residential neighborhoods. Records in a nearby county courthouse were moved to the second floor to prevent their ruin, while in the county just north of ours, a steady stream of water flowed through the second-floor windows of downtown buildings.
In a bit of irony, the swift water had ruptured several municipal water mains, and two homes in the same neighborhood were consumed by fire as firefighters stood hopeless once the supply of water in their trucks had been depleted.
Drinking water was virtually non-existent, so National Guard troops brought water trucks to various locations, where people were allowed to fill jugs and other containers. One of Budweiser’s major breweries (I can’t remember where it was located) halted production of beer and began producing canned water, which was also flown in by military helicopters and small planes.
Acts of heroism abounded, performed by city police, sheriff’s deputies, firemen and individuals, but the flood ruined about 65,000 acres of cotton, corn, peanuts and peaches. More than 500 homes were damaged or destroyed, just in our county. It became a common sight to see people traveling by boat in downtown areas, since no other means of transportation (except aircraft) could maneuver the city streets.
By the time the flood waters started receding, 31 people had died across the state. Fifteen of the names on the roster of victims were residents of our county.
The Flood of 1994 also gave to me and the rest of our paper’s team our fabled 15 minutes of fame. Since nobody could get into or out of our county except by air, we would take turns being interviewed over the phone by local and national media outlets, including the 5 or 10 minutes I spent on the phone with Canadian Broadcasting Company reporters.
Speaking of our newspaper team, there were no ballgames being played and no social clubs met, so our sports editor, society editor, publisher and even some of our carriers were recruited to help cover the historic natural disaster.
I have since then stared a tornado in the face (in 2008, when one tore through eastern Prattville), and have braved many lesser storms with a notebook and pen in hand. But the Flood of 1994 was my initial first-hand look at what Mother Nature can do when she’s in a foul mood.
During a conversation about tropical weather several years prior to that, a friend had told me that, “if it doesn’t turn into a hurricane, there probably won’t be much to it.” I found out 24 years ago next week that my friend was dreadfully wrong.
I’ll never completely forget the Flood of 1994, and I’ll continue to cringe every six years, when Alberto gets set to make another appearance.