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Impact of Flood of 1994 endures two decades later

By Carlton Fletcher, The Albany Herald, Ga.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

June 27--ALBANY -- As the waters of the Flint River and its tributaries in and around Albany and Southwest Georgia left their embankments and inundated thousands upon thousands of acres after Tropical Storm Alberto dumped 23 inches of rainwater in a 24-hour period over the July Fourth holiday in 1994, the devastation that followed was eventually measured in loss.

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Albany & Southwest Georgia Flood of '94 Gallery

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These are images from the Flood of 1994, the worst natural disaster to strike Albany and Southwest Georgia.

Loss of homes. Loss of farmland. Loss of livelihood. Loss of serenity. Even loss of life.

Go here to see the 20th anniversary special section on the Flood of 1994.

The community put aside differences of religion, differences of socioeconomic status and even differences of race for an unforgettable but regrettably short-lived period after the flood waters receded. The impact of the loss suffered at the hands of the Flood of '94, however, is still being felt two decades later.

Large swaths of prime real estate in the heart of downtown Albany sit now and forever vacant by order of the federal government, declared uninhabitable by a Federal Emergency Management Agency that doled out billions of dollars in disaster relief to help rebuild the region. Showcase homes that were the talk of their various neighborhoods in their early-'90s prime are now boarded up, visited only by various creatures that make their way inside through entrance crevices that are the byproduct of years of neglect.

Whole neighborhoods are gone, denying generations stable roots, a vital component of family history, and forcing whole families into nomadic existences that, for some, persist 20 years removed from the devastation.

"There are areas of this city that are never coming back," said Albany City Commissioner Jon Howard, who helped fill sandbags at the Albany Civic Center even as the flood waters were taking aim at his city. "There are places that are almost like toxic dumps.

"It's been 20 years since that flood, but the magnitude -- the impact it had on this community -- is still being felt today. Folks who were born and raised here couldn't believe this was happening to them; it was like reading a fairy-tale story. Folks scattered, and many of them didn't come back. A lot of those who did are still having flashbacks."

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Albany and Dougherty County were perhaps most impacted by the flood, both economically and psychologically. One of Georgia's largest counties population-wise prior to 1994, Dougherty has lost almost 6,000 residents since the flood. And while many in that group have remained in the Albany Metropolitan Statistical Area, opting to relocate in neighboring Lee County, the migration has created an imbalance that can be illustrated statistically.

While Dougherty County was losing 6,000 residents over the past two decades, Lee County was adding more than 10,000, its population climbing from 19,000 in 1994 to more than 29,000 today. Lee was actually in the midst of a mini-boom when the flood waters hit, its population exploding from 14,000 in 1990 to almost 20,000 in the four years before the flood.

"The results of the Flood of '94 were horrifying, there's no denying that," Lee County Chamber of Commerce Director Winston Oxford said. "It almost seems a shame to say this, but there are folks who actually benefited from the flood. Look at the growth at Albany State University. Their campus was completely wiped out, but they eventually were able to build a pretty much modern, state-of-the-art campus.

"Lee County had started growing residentially in the late '80s, and while a lot of that growth had to do with the county school system, with what I'll call 'bright flight,' the flood caused the growth to blossom. There were people who did not want to take the chance of rebuilding (in Dougherty County) and having to go through another flood, so they took the opportunity to move into Lee County neighborhoods like Calloway Lakes, neighborhoods that had started to take off in 1991, '92 and '93."

Retailers took note of the population growth in Lee County, paying special attention to the once-rural bedroom community's new-found wealth. Even today, Lee's median income of $58,400 almost doubles Dougherty's $31,789.

"It's the same old story when it comes to retail: Commercial investment chases residential," Oxford said.

Other Southwest Georgia communities impacted heavily by the flood have seen fluctuations in population over the past 20 years as well, but the net results have been less drastic. To the south of Dougherty County, the Baker County farming community has seen a population loss of some 500, while Sumter County to the north has lost around 600 residents. Since Baker's population is minimal at 3,341, its losses are more significant.

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Some in the county point to another reason many Dougherty Countians chose to pull up stakes rather than use recovery money to rebuild on land that for some had been in their families for generations.

"A lot of the people in south Dougherty County were given the option of rebuilding on their property, but they chose not to," Jack Stone, who has served on the Dougherty County Commission for the past 28 years, said. "They found out that if they rebuilt, they had to buy flood insurance that was so outrageous they couldn't afford it. A lot of those folks went into Lee or Worth counties or somewhere else away from the water."

The Dougherty County School System, which has been a lightning rod for negative news in recent years, also is seen as a victim of the flood. Psychologists say the children of the Flood of '94, from kindergartners to high school students, suffered a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that is directly related to the county's steadily declining standardized test scores.

"When you have a large number of students who were displaced by the flood, many of whom were forced to move to a new neighborhood and a new school, there's going to be an impact," said one child psychologist who took part in conducting a study of the impact of the flood on area students but asked that her name not be used. "Understand, many of these students were living with older relatives -- typically grandparents -- who had difficulty explaining the phenomenon of the rising flood waters.

"Many used biblical or 'folk' explanations that often confused the younger students and left many feeling that either they were somehow partially responsible or that the 'retribution' for sinful acts could happen again at any time. Those images left many students frightened and unable to function as well as they had prior to the flood. And many experienced various levels of fear any time there was a subsequent rain event."

Still, the city of Albany has used the lessons its leaders learned from the Flood of '94 to try and make changes that will benefit the community in the presence of subsequent heavy rains. Those changes have mostly impacted the city's infrastructure.

"We learned a lot from the Flood of '94," city Public Works Director Phil Roberson said. "As far as I know, nobody alive had ever seen the river at the levels it was during the flood. So while we were dealing with the issues that impacted our residents, we were also trying to come up with ways to make improvements going forward.

"We were able to put together a plan that we think will allow us to mitigate future issues. But there's no real way of knowing how you'll mitigate issues when the river is at the level it was during the flood. But over the course of a decade or so, we were able to make repairs to our roads and to our infrastructure that we believe will allow us to deal much better with any other such high water issues in the future. Of course, this was a 500-year flood, so I'd have to anticipate that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event."

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Both Albany City Manager James Taylor and Dougherty County Administrator Richard Crowdis agree that their governmental bodies have focused on necessary storm-abatement improvements as a result of the flood.

"All of our future plans in the vicinity of the river will be impacted by the Flood of '94," Taylor said. "There will be no more permanent, livable structures built close enough to the river to be impacted. And the city will own property it was given by the federal government that it can never sell but must maintain forever. We can't sell it, and we can't give it away. That will never go away."

Still, Crowdis says the benefits of being located along a waterway like the Flint far outweigh the negatives.

"A lot of the storm drainage improvements we've made in the county was financed using SPLOST (special-purpose local-option sales tax) money that was allocated directly because of the Flood of '94," Crowdis said. "We've put in needed equipment and we've made corrections. They're not going to stop the Flint from overflowing its banks, but these improvements will allow us to address these issues better in the future.

"The people of Dougherty County will never forget that flood. It left a lasting imprint. But I don't think the flood will cast a shadow that keeps us from growing. The river that runs through this community is still a tremendous asset to Albany and Dougherty County."


(c)2014 The Albany Herald, Ga.

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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