The hearts of Middle Georgians go out to those impacted in Texas and Louisiana by Hurricane Harvey. The devastation is unimaginable — for most people — but not for many Georgians who lived through Tropical Storm Alberto that sat over this area as a tropical depression in the summer of 1994.
Alberto’s primary target was Florida, Alabama and Georgia, and while Middle Georgia took a hit, the real impact was felt south of us. No question, Alberto and Harvey were completely different storms — Alberto with sustained winds of 63 mph compared to Harvey’s hurricane force winds of 140 mph. The two storms did have a few things in common. In the end, the most devastating element of both wasn’t wind, but water. Harvey and Alberto sat over their targets and unloaded inch-after-inch of rainfall.
As far as amounts of rain are concerned, there is also little comparison. Alberto dumped about 28 inches of rainfall on Georgia and caused about $1 billion in damages. It’s much too early to estimate the devastation from Harvey, but never has a storm dumped as much water on the continental United States. Meteorologists are still trying to get an accurate measurement, but they know Harvey has broken all records at 50 inches of rain, flooding rivers, bayous, creeks, and everything else in its path.
While Houston is the nation’s fourth largest city with a population of 6.4 million people in the nine county metropolitan area, there are some aspects of that part of Texas most people don’t know about the Magnolia City. Floods bring out critters not usually seen in urban settings from snakes, many of them poisonous, to alligators — lots of them. The water also brings to the surface another pest normally easy to avoid: fire ants. Water doesn’t kill them. It just makes them mad. They are waterproof and they hook together in bunches by the thousands, float along until they find something to latch onto. If that something is human or animal, pain is sure to follow.
While Alberto brought flooding to Macon around Interstate 16 and Interstate 75, along Riverside Drive and the area around Delano Drive and some of downtown, most of the city was dry after the rain stopped. The water plant, now Amerson River Park, was in Alberto’s path and was disabled, leaving residents without water for weeks. Water pickup stations became a normal, daily activity. Macon lost 150 homes to flood waters but nowhere near the loss of 5,000 homes in Dougherty County. Albany was cut in two because of bridge washouts and Albany State University saw extensive damage. Americus and Montezuma experienced damage and death.
Alberto was responsible for 32 deaths, and as of this writing, Harvey is being blamed for 46. Emergency responders and ordinary citizens are better prepared today — and social media, for all of its ills, has to be given credit. When normal lines of communication didn’t work, people turned to their smartphones to get the word out that they needed rescue. One thing hasn’t changed: The human element.
Many of the deaths from Alberto and Harvey were preventable. People, not realizing the depth of water on roads were swept away in their vehicles by fast moving currents. But that human element is also responsible for neighbors pitching in to help neighbors, and in the case of Harvey, Texans, of all stripe, pitching in to help Texans.
Water, while essential to our survival, can invade anywhere it finds a sliver of an opening. Memories have been lost. Homes and vehicles damaged and destroyed. Insurance companies will take a huge hit — as will the U.S. Treasury. The flood insurance program is already $25 billion in debt and Congress will have to act to plow more money into the program. Texans are our neighbors, too. Georgians understand that, maybe more than most.
What we don’t want to see is the same type of fighting that went on in Congress after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is now on the other side of that coming debate. We are sure some of his northeastern colleagues, while saying the right words now, will take it out of his hide and that of others who raised objections to the funding measure.
So as we watch the waters recede, we must keep those hurt by Harvey in our prayers. When the water disappears, that’s just the beginning of their recovery. Those prayers will have to continue for years to come.