The year was 1994. It was summer. Ted and I still lived and worked in Albany, GA and planned to spend part of our vacation taking my mom and dad to New England, a trip they had wanted to take for a long time. We were looking forward to the trip – it would be our first time in the New England states also. Although the trip was a success, and I cherish the memories I carry from it, we returned home to an area that had been devastated – not by the predicted “flood of the century” – but by a 500-year flood of epic proportions.
A little tropical storm called Alberto had blown through the Florida Panhandle on Sunday, July 3. Ted was in Panama City (we had a condo there at the time). Besides messing up the long holiday weekend for tourists with lots of rain and wind, it barely registered as a storm. But it wouldn’t go away. It continued inland and between midnight and 8 am on Monday, it had dumped 8 inches of rain on Cuthbert (northwest of Albany), before heading toward Macon (2 hours north of Albany). After a heavy rainfall Monday morning in Albany, the 4th of July fireworks show there was cancelled for the first time in 30 years.
By Tuesday, Alberto had deposited at least 15 inches of rain on 14 counties north of Albany – with no let-up in sight. Rivers and creeks were swelling out of their banks and washing over dams in Middle Georgia. Some dams burst. Homes were flooded. People drowned – 15 in Sumter County, where we now live. And all that water was heading south. By the time the waters of the Flint River flooded Albany, it had already devastated the homes along the banks of Lake Blackshear.
I rode over to Ed and Sally Feagin’s this week to talk with them about their memories of the flood. They live now in the same house they lived in then, and being situated on a high, sloping lot, their house had not flooded. Because most houses on the waters of Lake Blackshear are built on low lots (some only a few feet from the water), the majority of the houses were flooded – to the roofline on one-story homes, and to the ceiling of the first floor on two-story houses. Very few homes survived with no water damage – Ed and Sally’s was one of them.
The Feagins talked about being awakened at 3 a.m. on Wednesday morning (July 6) by Sumter County Sheriff deputies going house to house – telling everyone to leave immediately. On Flintside Drive, our street and where the Feagins live also, there are two tiny creeks we cross on the way to the highway. Both were in danger of overflowing the road and washing it away. Within minutes of the deputies arriving, the power went out on Flintside. Sally says she picked up a life jacket, a jar of peanut butter, and their dog Oscar and his food. They jumped in one of their cars, and when they arrived at one of creeks, water was already a foot deep on the road. A few hours later, the road washed out at both creeks.
Last week we took the pontoon boat down the river to the Crisp County Power Dam. Lake Blackshear was formed in 1930 when the dam was constructed to provide hydro-electric power to businesses and residents within a 330 square mile radius. It borders five counties and has 97 miles of shoreline.
Because the water levels were the same on both sides, there was no massive emptying of Lake Blackshear and very little additional flooding downriver. Ed and Sally said the breaching of the dam only lowered the water in the lake about 6″. But in the days ahead, as the waters receded on both sides of the dam, the lake emptied and except for the river channel, Lake Blackshear was high and dry for over a year while the dam was repaired and rebuilt.
Ted and I had watched with horror the flooding every morning on TV from various hotel rooms up the east coast and into New England. Each morning we would find ourselves watching friends in Albany being interviewed on the Today Show. Our home in the city was not in a flood zone, so that didn’t concern us. What caused us great worry was the number of people who we DID know whose homes had been flooded. Both of us worked for the school system in Albany, and we returned to several flooded schools also. Once back home we helped where we could and learned up close and personal how strong people are in adversity.
In the spring of 1995, Blake had just graduated from high school and gone off to college, and without the concern of school zones to hamper us, we sold our home in Albany and moved into a rental home on Lake Blackshear. In October of that year Hurricane Opal swept across the Florida panhandle, taking all the shingles off the front roof of our beach condo, leaving only the plywood base. Tired of the constant worry over hurricanes, we sold the condo a week after Opal hit and began to look for a home to buy on Lake Blackshear.