‘You always want that big story.’ Former Telegraph photographer relives flood of 1994
It is difficult to explain the Great Flood of 1994 to someone who did not live here at the time.
It is not easy to describe it to a young person who wasn’t born when the Ocmulgee River spilled over the top of its banks, as if someone had left the bath water running in the upstairs tub and flooded the living room below.
They have no frame of reference. They cannot fathom the depth of the summer when the river got too close and personal, invaded our space and turned parking lots into spillways and street signs into buoys.
They only can shake their heads in wonder at how boats once floated through the intersection of Pierce Avenue and Riverside Drive. And marvel at how a fish was found in the outfield at Luther Williams Field after the flood waters subsided, giving new meaning to the “catch of the day.’’
They must stretch their imaginations when we recount stories of how we took on so much water, then watched our kitchen sinks go dry for 17 days.
The Ocmulgee almost is a benign body of water. It sneaks through town nearly hidden from view. It never seems to be in much of hurry to get where it’s going. We only catch sideway glances when we cross the downtown bridges. The river is like the neighbor we never see unless we stroll along the river walk or take a picnic lunch to Amerson River Park.
Believe me, there was nothing “great” about the “Great Flood” except its far-reaching impact. It was categorized as a “100-year flood.’’ We still are telling stories about it at the supper table 25 years later, so maybe it is on its way to immortality.
We watermark its silver anniversary this weekend, much the same way we always revisit history with somber reflections and joyful achievements. Last month, it was the 75th anniversary of D-Day. In two weeks, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. In August, the pages will turn back to Woodstock, also in the summer of ’69, and hippies everywhere will compare notes on how a music festival on a dairy farm in New York became a cultural icon.
This weekend also marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Amazon – the world’s largest online marketplace – and the theater release of “Forrest Gump,’’ winner of the Best Picture Oscar that year and one of my all-time favorite movies.
However, the season’s first tropical storm was commanding most of our attention at the time. We had our hands full with Alberto – a Spanish name meaning noble and bright, only this Alberto was nasty and wet. He blew ashore along the Florida Panhandle, made a beeline for Alabama, took a giant U-turn into Georgia and lingered like an unwanted house guest.
There might have been drought-filled summers when 13 inches of rain would have been greeted with a welcome wagon. But we already had been soaked by summer storms. The ground was saturated, and creeks and rivers were swollen. From Atlanta and north Georgia, there was nowhere for the water to run, except downhill past a merciless floodgate into the midstate and southwest Georgia.
It took days for the high tides to withdraw from quiet neighborhoods and busy interstates. Not to diminish the loss of lives and property downstream in places like Montezuma and Albany, the biggest fallout in Macon was from the flooding of the Macon Water Authority’s water treatment plant. It was at the bend of the river at what is now Amerson Water Park, a little more than a mile from the home we lived in at the time in Riverside Park.
The shutdown in operations left the city without water for almost three weeks. I have lived without air-conditioning during summer heat waves, and have shivered in the cold and dark of winter storms, but I never have been through anything like it.
Many of us stood in line at fire stations and shopping centers to fill our containers with clean water delivered in huge tanker trucks brought in by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. We washed clothes and flushed toilets with water from neighbors’ wells and swimming pools. (Every time I see a Port-a-Pottie, I think of the Flood of ’94 … not the fondest of memories.)
It has been called the worst natural disaster in our city’s history. The only rival that comes close was the freak snowstorm of Feb. 9-10, 1973. It dumped a record 16.5 inches in a community that routinely closes schools and clears grocery shelves in advance of any forecast calling the possibility of snowflakes.
The blizzard of ’73 brought our corner of the world to a standstill in a different way. Despite its hardships, and the way it brought everything to a halt, there are scrapbooks filled with Kodak moments of makeshift sleds and carrot-nosed snowmen.
The flood was difficult. It was challenging. But, like all significant weather events, it was our common denominator. In times of crisis, we pull together. And we all live under the same sky, even when it rains.
That is the lesson we learned. May we never forget it.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.