On July 14, 1994, Memorial Bridge on Broad Avenue was reopened for pedestrain traffic. For the first time since the Great Flood divided Albany and Dougherty County in half, residents from one side of the river could get to the other without taking a 100-mile one-way drive. (Albany Herald file photo)
ALBANY — One of the most significant impacts that the Flood of 1994 had on Albany was the record high waters that split the community in two.
Go here to see the 20th anniversary special section on the Flood of 1994.
The Flint River dissects the city, creating a boundary marking East Albany and West Albany. All four of the bridges that connect the two halves of the city were shut down as the flood waters rose to 43.6 feet, eclipsing the mark set in January 1925.
Constructed in 1920 and named Memorial Bridge in memory of veterans of World War I (known as the Great War before World War II followed two decades later), the Broad Avenue bridge was the oldest — and smallest — of the four Albany bridges that traversed the Flint. There was speculation that the flood waters would doom it.
Instead, on July 14, 1994 it became the first bridge to reopen. Pedestrians were allowed to use Memorial Bridge that first day. On July 15, it was shut down again temporarily because debris had lodged against it, while a center lane of the Oglethorpe Boulevard bridge a few hundred feet to the south was opened to pedestrian traffic. That same day, the Liberty Expressway, which also crosses the Flint, was reopened to traffic from the Mitchell County line to U.S. Highway 82 north of the Albany Mall.
That had a significant impact on those who resided on the east side of the river. Since the connections were shut down, the two parts of town had been cut off from each other. The only way to cross from one side to the other was by helicopter or by driving to Sylvester, then north to Cordele, west to Leslie and south through Leesburg. It was a 100-mile trip each way.
Even more critical was the loss of access to emergency health care. With both of the hospitals operating in Albany in 1994 — Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and Palmyra Medical Center — located on the west side of the river, those on the east side looked at drives of 40 miles to get to acute care facilities.
That first morning when the Broad Avenue bridge was reopened, hundreds of people parked their cars as close as they could to it on one side of the river and walked to their jobs on the other. Those who made that initial stroll across the still-swollen Flint tended to have smiles on their faces, having found an alternative to the 200-mile daily commutes.
Even though the bridge was closed again because of the debris, for many it was an important symbol. A town that had been divided in half was whole again, and it was the object that reconnected everything.
But what the swift current of a river swollen to a level a person would only expect to see once in a half millennium couldn’t accomplish, age finally did. In February 2009 — more than a decade after it survived the great flood and a second major one in 1998 — divers with the Georgia Department of Transportation inspected its footings and found they were worn to the point of being unsafe. The bridge was closed to motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and debate began on whether to rehabilitate the span or replace it with a new structure.
Georgia DOT engineers said repairing the footings would cost half of a $9 million rehabilitation project, while giving the then-92-year-old structure a maximum extended life of 35 years. New construction would have an expected lifespan of a century. The decision was made to demolish the 1920 bridge and replace it.
A last-ditch grassroots efforts was launched in December 2011 to save the historic Memorial Bridge as a pedestrian walkway. Proponents of rehabilitating Memorial Bridge pushed the issue on social media, arguing the historical significance of the structure should be taken into account.
But on Feb. 11, 2012, — three years after the last car traveled across the bridge — Memorial Bridge was decommissioned in a ceremony. When construction is completed on the new bridge, officials said, it will be commissioned in memory of the World War I veterans, bearing the plaques that say it is “a memorial to those who went from Dougherty County to serve their country in the Great War.”
The effort to save the now-decommissioned Broad Street bridge continued into the early spring, with proponents hoping to delay the start of demolition until after voters took up a regional transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax referendum that included a new bridge connecting Clark Avenue in East Albany with Society Avenue on the west side. That referendum, along with the effort to preserve the bridge, failed.
In May 2012, PCL Civil Constructors Inc. of Tampa, Fla., was awarded the contract to demolish the Broad Avenue bridge and to construct a new span. The demolition project got under way that July. When Independence Day 2015 rolls around, the new Memorial Bridge should be finished.
Nita Birmingham, spokeswoman for the Georgia DOT office in Tifton, said in a recent interview that the $11.9 million bridge is on target for its June 30, 2015 completion date. As of June 16, the project was “about 60 percent done,” she said, which includes both demolition and construction.
While she said the new Broad Avenue bridge is “not significantly higher” than its predecessor, it will reach a height of 203.58 feet above sea level at its highest point.
And that may be just enough to make the trip to work a little more humane if another flood of the magnitude of the one in ’94 comes around during this new bridge’s lifespan.
“It’s just above the 500-year flood stage,” Birmingham said.