Albany Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Ronald Rowe spent most of his days during the Flood of 1994 rescuing citizens from rooftops and trees by boat. (Staff photo: Brad McEwen)
ALBANY — In some ways Albany has been a divided community, but never has that division been more clearly defined than during the catastrophic Flood of 1994 when the Flint River burst from its banks and literally cut the community in half.
Go here to see the 20th anniversary special section on the Flood of 1994.
Unprepared for a disaster of that magnitude, the city’s Emergency Management Services officials were scrambling as the flood waters swamped much of the town, leaving residents on the east side of the swollen river without access to health care and other critical services. Stories abound of residents being taken by helicopter or boat to shelters and hospitals, or having to commute nearly 100 miles one way to get to work or reach their families.
Through those hard lessons, however, steps have been taken to ensure that residents throughout the community, regardless of their location, now have access to more resources and that those who manage those resources are better prepared should such a disaster strike again.
According to Albany Fire Department Chief James Carswell, who during the flood served as one of two assistant fire chiefs with the department, the biggest changes that have occurred since 1994 are improvements in technology, improved resources and improved partnerships with different agencies across the state.
Carswell said that while many changes have come about as a direct result of the Flood of ‘94, one of the biggest has been enabled through the advancement of technology.
In 1994, emergency workers had to rely on information from the National Weather Service (NWS) to know how much water was coming and when it would arrive. Carswell said emergency personnel first met to review NWS information and start planning a course of action the afternoon/evening of July 6. Based on the information at hand, it was believed personnel had roughly two days to get people evacuated and prepare in advance of the Flint’s crest.
That meeting ended at 11 p.m. Just a few hours later came the realization that the situation was much worse then originally thought.
“We went home that night and by 2 o’clock in the morning we were already rescuing people off the rooftops,” Carswell said. “It literally went from no water at all to rooftops in a matter of four hours. It took us by surprise, took everybody by surprise.”
Thanks to technological improvements, including improved weather tracking and water level detection, Carswell feels emergency planners today would not be caught off guard and could better respond as situations arose.
“The National Weather Service has a much better way of tracking not only the rivers, but also the creeks,” Carswell said. “Back then, not only on the rivers but on the creeks in particular, there were all manual measuring devices and now they do a lot more stuff with satellite.”
Another way technology would improve overall response to a similar situation is through the development of better communications equipment, such as smart phones and radios, and access to Global Positioning Systems (GPS).
In 1994, emergency personnel working around the clock to rescue people had to rely on older radios and an overall lack of them. Assistant Fire Chief Ron Rowe, who at the time was a firefighter who spent most of his time during the flood piloting a rescue boat, said rescue crews out on the water saving people couldn’t communicate with one another or home base because of a lack of available radios.
“I was in a boat for four days and had one radio that worked sparingly,” Rowe said. “Every person now has their own radio.”
Not only does every EMT and fireman have a radio now, they all likely have smart phones that can be used not only to communicate, but to access GPS coordinates, making their jobs infinitely easier.
“Technology’s helped a lot,” said Carswell. “With the phone systems, everybody’s phone has GPS and the boat we have now has GPS on it. 911 can see exactly where (someone is) standing and give us GPS coordinates and take the boat to you based on those coordinates. In ‘94, we had to rely on landmarks.”
In addition to technological improvements, there also have been important advancements in resources and how those resources are distributed.
Because flood waters rose so quickly and because many people did not heed evacuation warnings, a considerable amount of time and resources was spent performing rescues throughout the community. Carswell and Rowe say that emergency staff spent days performing hundreds of “extraordinary rescues” — getting people from rooftops and trees across the city.
One hindrance making those rescues difficult was that the fire department only had one boat and had to borrow boats from citizens, primarily emergency staffers, and from Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany.
“It was strictly a rescue operation and that’s what we were lacking — boats and people to operate them,” Carswell said. “The rescue boat that we had at that time only had a 20-horse Mercury engine, which does OK in normal circumstances. But the water was moving so fast down the river that we couldn’t go east or west across the river. We couldn’t go upstream.”
Carswell said the department now has three boats, all of which are designed to handle not only specific functions but also to be utilized in the event of another flood. In addition, the department is working to procure a fourth boat to be used for the department’s new dive team, another resource that would be available in the event of a flood.
While having necessary access to resources like boats to rescue people stranded in flood waters, another major obstacle during 1994 was inadequate health care services.
Once the city was effectively cut in half, with both hospitals (Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and Palmyra Medical Centers) on the west side of the river, residents in east Albany had no real access to health care resources. Anyone who needed to travel from the east side to the west was faced with a 90- to 100-mile commute north by way of Cordele and Leslie, then back south to Albany. Therefore ambulance service between the east and west parts of the county was rendered almost non-existent.
Today not only does Phoebe Putney operate Phoebe East on the east side of the city, which offers medical support to the community, but emergency management can now deploy a M.A.S.H.-like unit anywhere in the city.
“One of the things that we realized after the flood was our limitations on the east side in regard to medical facilities,” said Carswell. “One of the things we’ve done since then is District Health has a M.A.S.H. tent now that we can deploy and set up a medical facility anywhere we want to. If we have a situation in the future we can set this up and district health has that available for us.”
For the improvements in technology and resources that have been made, however, Carswell said two of the most important changes that have occurred since 1994 are improvements across the state and local levels to strengthen partnerships and the increased focus of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) on natural disasters.
In 1994, no one had conceived of such a large a disaster with widespread flooding of the magnitude of the ‘94 event. No agreements were in place to ensure different organizations would be able to share resources and work together to deal with such a situation.
Fortunately, private individuals, corporate partners and different agencies came together to help in ‘94, but now there are even stronger agreements in place to ensure cooperation.
One such partnership that now exists is between Albany and MCLB-Albany. According to EMA Deputy Director Jim Vaught, who during 1994 was an active duty Marine stationed at MCLB-Albany, there are formal agreements in place for aid and cooperation.
“We actually have a federal agreement now with the Marine base, two of them, for fire services and also for 911 communications,” Vaught said. “Should they lose their capability, they can come in and we’ll make room for them, and vice versa.”
In addition to that understanding, various other agreements now exist between different agencies and counties throughout the state, thanks to a change in focus for GEMA. Carswell believes that because of the Flood of 1994, GEMA shifted its focus from Cold War defense issues to natural disaster threats.
“We have better partnerships with all the other players in the region,” Carsell said. “Even from the state perspective, this has been a learning experience. All the counties in Georgia, through GEMA, signed a mutual aid agreement, so every county is of mutual aid to every other county in the state on these types situations. So, our resources are shared resources across all the counties. So, that’s kind of the big umbrella everything else falls under.”
Vaught summed it up: “We’re part of GEMA Area 2, which is made up of 23 counties in Southwest Georgia and it’s basically anytime we’re in an emergency that’s beyond our capabilities its one for all, all for one.”
In fact, it is the general sentiment of all for one, one for all that Carswell, Rowe and Vaught feel is the real key to how well the community handled the flood of ‘94 It’s also the reason the three think the community could withstand a disaster of similar magnitude.
Despite all the new training, technology, resources and partnerships, the biggest lesson learned by emergency responders and the community as a whole was that by pulling together, the local residents can accomplish what needs to be done.
“It’s one of those things I would say of our community; we can be at odds with each other occasionally, but I’ve never seen it when in a time of need it didn’t come together,” Carswell said. “When there’s a need, somebody steps up and takes care of it.
“In my career, almost 42 years, I’ve never seen the community not come together in a time of need. Now, two weeks later they may be fussing about some other stuff, but during that crisis, I’ve never seen them not come together. It was pretty amazing then and it amazes me every time. This community will put all of their differences aside and help each other out in a time of need.”