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The Flood of 1994: July 9 - loating coffins a gruesome sight

The Lake Blackshear dams is breached to the north and Newton residents brace for higher water to the south

Officials tied caskets that emerged from their grave sites at Riverside and Oakview cemeteries downtown to trees. The remains were taken to be preserved and identified. In all, 438 caskets came up, and all but 95 were identified. (Albany Herald file photo)

Officials tied caskets that emerged from their grave sites at Riverside and Oakview cemeteries downtown to trees. The remains were taken to be preserved and identified. In all, 438 caskets came up, and all but 95 were identified. (Albany Herald file photo)

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Most of the town of Newton was under water during the height of the Flood of 1994. (Albany Herald file photo)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an installment of a series of articles on the Flood of 1994 from reports published in The Albany Herald.

ALBANY — Of the images from the Flood of ‘94, none may be as vivid — or as disturbing — as the sight of hundreds of coffins that were unearthed from grave sites near the Flint River in downtown Albany.

Initial reports indicated about 200 caskets and popped from the ground in Riverside and Oakview cemeteries. Later, the number would be determined to be 438.

When the sun rose on July 9, it shined on coffins that had been tied to trees and whatever else workers could find during the middle of the night. A crew of 20 Marines and Air Force personnel worked into the early morning hours of that Saturday, tying the bobbing caskets to trees and collecting free-floating remains in body bags.

“Our main concern,” Albany fire Chief James Carswell said, “was identification, so we were trying to tie them off and preserve as much of the remains as we could. Of course, some of these graves are so old that notifying the next of kin may be impossible.”

One member of the cemetery crew said the caskets were “popping up like popcorn,” while another observed that the coffins would explode into the sky as high as 6 feet out of the water.

“You know how a beach ball shoots up after you hold it under water?” Carswell asked. “Well, it’s sort of like that.”

Workers were removing the caskets and taking them to a then-undisclosed location for refrigeration and, eventually identification. (Ninety-five of the bodies would never be identified and are now located in a special area of Riverside Cemetery with numbered markers.)

Upstream, more trouble was brewing.

The Flint River surged over the Lake Blackshear dam, which officials said would likely make it take normal than had been expected for the flood waters to recede.

“The water is about as high on the downstream side as on the upstream side (of the dam), so there’s no particular push to it,” former city engineer John Sperry told The Herald. “There will be no wall of water crashing down on Albany.”

Reports had the height of the Flint at 43.7 feet (later, agencies officially set the high mark at 43 feet).

In any event, it meant that new neighborhoods were being flooded, areas where residents had not heeded warnings to evacuate. That forced police and other agencies into rescue mode yet again.

“If our people seem kind of rude to you, please remember they’re trying to save your life,” Dougherty County Police Chief Bill Kicklighter said. “We’ll apologize later.”

There were at least 20,000 Albany and Dougherty County who had been evacuated, with at 5,000 of those staying in shelters in Albany, Assistant City Manager Janice Allen told reporters.

Downstream, folks in the small town of Newton were moving out of places that none had ever thought would flood. Power was cut off to most of the town about 1 a.m. on the 9th and cooking was moved from the Baptist church, which was expected to take on water, to the Methodist church, located further west and on higher ground.

E.L. Crosby and his wife, both in their 80s, lived across the street from the Baptist church and were being moved out. Their home was about a half-mile from the courthouse, which, like the rest of downtown, was flooded. Volunteers were helping them get their belongings out.

“I’ve been here since ‘36,” Crosby observed. “That’s the reason I built this house up here out of the flood zone, or that’s what I thought.”

Charlie Dukes, the county manager and head of the Baker County Emergency Management Agency, said no one had been trapped in their homes and that the evacuation was going smoothly. After seeing the destruction in Americus, Macon and Albany, residents were taking the situation seriously and volunteers were working at a fever pitch.

“Baker County has surprised me,” Dukes said. “The volunteers, the coordination and the help has been just unreal.”

Sightseers were the primary problem as far as people. Authorities were trying to get three boats out of the water and some had gotten around barricades to look at the river from the Highway 37 bridge.

“They don’t understand that if they’re not trying to help somebody, we don’t need them,” newton police Chief Robert Hughes said. Looking back toward the flooded town, he added, “It’s a mess. I ain’t ever seen it like this.”