A shining moment in a time of darkness

ALBANY HERALD EDITORIAL: The Flood of 1994 divided Albany in half, but also brought it together

Two decades later, it all seems much longer ago. Yet in many ways, it was like yesterday.

Interest in Tropical Storm Alberto was lost almost as soon as it struck land in Florida and quickly downgraded to a wet low pressure system. It had started in western Africa in late June, crossed the Atlantic and moved up through the Gulf of Mexico, never generating the wind speed of a hurricane. But what it lacked in pedigree, it made up for with the punch from its slow, meandering path.

That slow movement had devastating effects on Georgia, especially Southwest Georgia. More than 2 feet of rain fell in Sumter County before the storm fell apart in Alabama, with 21 of those inches of rainfall falling within a 24-hour period on a night that proved to be the deadliest. In all, 31 people died from flood-related causes, including 15 in Sumter County alone.

People tend to personify natural events, and that first brush with Alberto seemed to be an angry one as the drenching downpour on soil already saturated from a wet June went into creeks, causing them to burst from their banks. Great walls of water proved particularly dangerous to those in vehicles, as many were swept from roadways into the fast-moving water. It was a fury cloaked in darkness as emergency personnel, thinking they had some brief time to prepare, found the disaster was already upon them.

Later, as the sun broke through, it was a time of getting ready and waiting. Predictions on how high the Flint River would get were frequently adjusted, each time resulting in a worse scenario. Originally believed to top out at 31 feet, forecasters found themselves adjusting the numbers by feet, not inches.

It became clear that Albany and Southwest Georgia — in recorded history, at least — had never experienced the magnitude of water that was barreling south, picking up more runoff as it swept toward Albany, Newton and Bainbridge on its pathway back to the Gulf.

It was coming, and there was nothing that could stop it. It could only be endured. It was, to borrow a phrase from Dickens, the worst of times.

But that also was a time — a much too brief time — when the community put divisions and distrust aside, working together to survive and comfort one another. The worst that nature had to offer brought out the best in us. In many ways, that was the best of times for our community.

There were victories that were small in comparison to the devastation that covered an area of Georgia as large as Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined with water, but for the human spirit, every success was cause to celebrate. And who can forget the morning when the Memorial Bridge, dedicated to veterans of World War I, reopened to pedestrians, allowing the two sides of Albany that had been divided for days to come together again? We all knew that the long recovery had not even begun, yet the symbolism of reconnecting what the river had severed lifted the soul.

Human nature, though, is what it is. After the waters receded and life found to a “new” normal pattern, things that had not seemed important when the focus was on survival and differences that didn’t matter resurfaced.

In Albany’s darkest hour came perhaps it’s most shining moment. If only it could shine again like that, this time in the light of day.

— The Albany Herald Editorial Board