Flood came, stayed and soaked our memories

July 3, 2014 

A truck turns around on Smith Road near Forsyth after heavy flooding washed away both lanes, Tuesday, July 5, 1994. JAMES BORCHUCK/The Telegraph

The Flood of 1994 began for me 20 years ago today in a hotel room 638 miles upstream in St. Louis.

Thousands of people were gathered beneath the famous Gateway Arch for a Fourth of July concert on the banks of the most storied river in America.

From my hotel window, I had a fabulous view of the arch and the Mississippi River. A year earlier, a much different picture would have been painted. For 144 days beginning in April 1993, the mighty Mississippi swelled above flood stage, creating one of the most devastating floods in U.S. history.

I was in St. Louis to cover the National Sports Festival, a prelude to the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. I watched TV news reports about the season’s first tropical storm. Alberto had swept ashore the day before along the Florida Panhandle near Destin.

That got my attention. We had vacationed there only a few weeks earlier. And I remember thinking what a bummer it would have been to be there now in the middle of that storm.

Of course, I had no idea what awaited me when I returned to Macon the next day. I never could have dreamed that Alberto -- a Spanish name meaning noble and bright -- would become a household name in my hometown. Or that I would still be writing about him two decades later.

He didn’t just blow in and dump 13 inches of rain our heads.

He came. He stayed. He soaked.

By the time our unwanted guest skipped town, he had left his watermark on the greatest natural disaster in the history of our area.

I flew back from St. Louis on July 5. It was the most terrifying flight of my life. High winds and heavy rains tossed us around like a paper airplane as we approached the airport in Atlanta. I was so wet by the time I reached my car, I had to run the heater -- in July -- on my drive back to Macon.

Although the fury stopped the following day, our troubles were just beginning. The ground was saturated. The creeks and rivers were swollen, the lakes bloated. We were getting ready to scramble to higher ground.

And then it happened.

To quote from a famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” there was “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

I never saw it coming. I had been skirting natural disasters all my life. Ice storms in LaGrange. Hurricanes and tropical storms in Jacksonville, Florida. Tornadoes in Atlanta and Athens.

But I had never prepared for a flood. I never thought it necessary at every landlocked ZIP code I had called home. Except for an occasional gully washer and flash flooding in the streets, I had never been more than ankle deep on Spring Street.

Not to diminish the loss of lives and property in the Flood of ‘94, but the most punishing fallout for most of us was the three weeks we went without water. The Macon Water Authority’s treatment plant -- less than a mile and a half from the home where we lived in Riverside Park -- was forced to shut down operations.

When we turned on the faucet, nothing came out. When we went to the tub or toilet, nothing drained or flushed.

Now, I have been without air conditioning in summer and shivered without heat in winter. I have been stuck in the dark with flashlights. Shoot, I’ve even survived without cable TV on a Saturday night during college football season. (Just once, though.)

But I only thought I had “roughed” it. Macon went 17 days without running water. Never again will I take it for granted.

We all learned the meaning of “spit” baths. We drew water to wash clothes and flush toilets from neighbors’ wells and swimming pools. And lest we forget those Port-A-Potties ... (How could we?)

Despite the hardships, there was a sense of unity and community spirit. We were in the proverbial boat together, even if it was the result of the magnitude of a flood that only comes around every century or so.

We rallied and filled our containers with water delivered by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency to shopping centers and fire stations.

The floodwaters rose in places we never thought possible. From Rocky Creek to Mossy Creek and all along the Ocmulgee, bridges and roads were swept beneath the tide. Sandbags helped saved our printing press at the old newspaper offices on Broadway.

The intersection of Riverside and Pierce was a floating armada. Boats went where no boats had gone before. Luther Williams Field became Luther Williams Lake. When the waters finally withdrew, they found a carp in the outfield, giving new meaning to “catch of the day.”

My personal reflections on that unforgettable first week in July have come flooding back this week, as our newspaper staff has prepared stories for the 20th anniversary.

To drop a depth finder on those memories, I can look at my youngest son, Jake. He was 6 months old and wearing diapers when Alberto came calling.

Jake is now 20 years old and will be a college junior in the fall. All week, our family has been tracking Tropical Storm Arthur, also the first storm of the season, as it brushes past along the coast.

The memories also were stirred last Friday, one week ago today, when Delinda and I were returning from a trip.

We drove through St. Louis on Interstate 64. I quickly glanced at the old hotel and the landmark arch as we crossed the bridge over the Mississippi River.

When we reached Illinois and turned the wheels south, it started to rain.

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com

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