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Water plant workers recall 1994 flood: ‘We were working 12 hours a day for about 20 days’

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Macon flood of 1994

It’s been 25 years since Tropical Storm Alberto barreled into Georgia, killing 33 people and bringing floodwaters that left parts of Macon without water or power for weeks.

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William Brown was in the most dangerous area of the Macon Water Treatment Plant when he saw floodwaters rising outside a window.

He was standing in the boiler room, surrounded by 2,300 volts of power.

There could have been a fire or explosion had the boiler been submerged. And there wasn’t a quick solution — Brown couldn’t just flip a switch to turn the boiler off before water seeped in.

It was July 6, 1994, when a breached levee along the Ocmulgee River caused by Tropical Storm Alberto shut down the plant.

Macon went without running water for more than 19 days.

Alberto became the city’s largest natural disaster.

In that moment on July 6, Brown was one of the employees tasked with safely shutting down the plant before the flooding worsened. He would not make it to his home in Warner Robins for three days.

“I’m looking at the water and the only thing that’s keeping me from the river is that building,” Brown recalled this week, the 25th anniversary of the flood. “When I stepped out my butt was in the water.”

Front-end load trucks were used to get employees to safe ground. Workers scrambled to remove some of the equipment.

The Water Authority workers would embark on a three-week stretch to get the buildings cleaned, equipment repaired, and the water turned back on.

It would take another two months before everything returned to normalcy.

Over the three weeks, the stress Water Authority employees felt may have matched the level of anger from Macon residents without running water.

One evening, a man spotted Brown wearing a mud-covered Water Authority uniform and attempted to fight him at a gas station.

“We were working 12 hours a day for about 20 days,” said Sylvester Marcus, grease management inspector for MWA. “That’s the first time I’d ever been stressed out. It’s an experience that I don’t ever want to see again. When I see other cities have floods, I know what they were going through.”

Water Authority employees returned the morning of July 7, 1994, but the amount of work that could be done was slowed until the water started receding.

Water had to be pumped out of the basement of the laboratory and from parts of other buildings. Some records were destroyed.

For a period of time, the only way to make phone calls was through Chester Stewart’s Motorola Bag Phone that he had in his company truck. It allowed the Water Authority to call contractors to get equipment picked up that needed to be repaired, said Stewart, a now-retired former assistant manager for the Water Authority.

Progress was incremental.

“Everything we tried to start up was wet and had to dry out,” Stewart said. “We called them 30 minute shutdowns. They would come on, give you high hopes they would stay online, then that moisture would set in and short-circuit.”

Nineteen days after the flood is when the smallest water pump at the plant was able to get running water to downtown Macon.

“It was a great feeling that you got that this one little pump was sending water,” Stewart said.

The former plant closed in 2000. The current Frank C. Amerson, Jr. Water Treatment Plant is much less likely to flood. It sits on higher ground on a 3000-acres campus in Jones County.

There was a bond that developed among Water Authority employees during that turbulent time.

“Everyone was depending on each other,” Stewart said. “The camaraderie, it’s there still to this day.”

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