This plaque at the Americus Fire and Emergency Services building includes the names of the Sumter County victims who were killed in the Flood of 1994. (Staff photo: Kim Purrier)
AMERICUS — “It’s sheer disaster.” Those were the words used by former Americus Fire Chief Steve Moreno on July 6, 1994 to describe the aftermath of the previous day, when more than 21 inches of rain fell in Sumter County in just 24 hours.
Go here to see the 20th anniversary special section on the Flood of 1994.
At least nine earthen dams around Muckalee and Town creeks had begun to collapse in the late night hours of July 5. Sumter County was in trouble, and no one could have predicted what would happen next. After all, Sumter County was not even a part of Georgia’s floodplain.
The flash flooding was sudden, unpredictable and deadly. There was no time for evacuation warnings, no chance to put up preventative barricades, sandbags, or road blocks. Even if there had been, it would not have mattered.
“The power and cable all went out during the night,” said WDEC/WISK broadcaster Donnie McCrary. When he realized that something big was happening, he attempted to go into work to Americus’ only local radio station. After all, someone had to inform the people with radio access. McCrary tried four different ways to get to work. “As a precaution, I tried to go down Forsyth Street over the viaduct. There was a full-size Bronco in front of me, and I was in a blazer. He turned to go north, and after about 20 feet he stopped and his flashers came on. I knew there was no way.” Water had already begun to overtake U.S. Highway 19 (Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard).
As he attempted a third route to work, he spotted a Sumter EMC technician and asked his advice on getting to the station. “It won’t do you any bit of good,” was the reply. “The station’s underwater.”
In just one short day, Americus, known as the “Shining City on a Hill,” was surrounded by a 500-year flood. “We were an island all by ourselves,” recalls Moreno.
Two decades later, he remembers nearly every minute detail of the week Tropical Storm Alberto drenched much of south and middle Georgia. The night of July 5, “I was just about to go to sleep. We were watching the news, and saw that a state of emergency had just been declared in Macon. My wife said to me, ‘If Macon is in trouble, why aren’t we?’”
Moreno knew then that it was time to prepare for the worst. “I got on the phone and called all the guys in,” he says with a laugh. “They thought I was crazy. Then at a quarter to one in the morning, all hell broke loose. And we were ready. The guys were ready.”
Ready they were, as much as they could be considering the circumstances. Moreno had been Americus fire chief — and assistant to the director of the Sumter County Emergency Management Agency, then-Sheriff Randy Howard — for just 10 months. That year alone, they had hired 10 new firefighters. And now they would all be, as Moreno put it, “baptized by fire through water.”
While power and phone lines were down all over the county, generators for the main radios were working fine. Moreno and his crew went to work. In all, they performed over 43 successful fast-water rescues, though none of them had any extensive rope training. “These guys, they had regular ropes and knots. Not the things they have now. And they got it done.”
Of course, they could not save every person from the unpredictable flash floods that would occur throughout the night and next day. This was one of the hardest things for Moreno and his staff to deal with.
One memory that still sticks in Moreno’s mind is what was most likely the first of 15 deaths in Sumter County. “There was a young lady. She was driving around the Sunset and Frieda Lane area. We got the call, we went,” Moreno said, pausing for composure as he remembered. “That was the worst part. The car was there. We saw it. But at that point, the water was swirling faster and faster. At that point, I knew there was absolutely nothing we could do. And that was hard.”
After that, the team did the only thing it could do – soldier on to save as many lives as possible. The rescues were bold, and the team acted on adrenaline and instincts. “Everything these guys did, they did out of pure guts and determination. They knew that they were needed, and they went to work. To this day, I am so proud of my team and what they accomplished.”
Two firefighters were on Lee Street Road, around Magnolia Manor Retirement Center, when they were faced with a daunting task. There were people hanging onto the trees, 250 feet off the road, surrounded by tumultuous flood waters. The firefighters did not hesitate at the distance, the waters, or their lack of equipment, as no one could get into the county to deliver emergency equipment, and officials requisitioned any relevant equipment from local sporting goods stores. “We did steal a few things,” Moreno quipped. The two men, along with a few citizens out to help, used what rope and resources they had and made the dangerous rescue. “They got a lot of rope training that night,” he said with a laugh.
It would be five days before things began to somewhat settle, but much longer before Americus and Sumter County could return to a sense of normalcy. Fifteen people lost their lives. Moreno can remember the circumstance of each death, as do many other Sumter County citizens. Two people perished when they were washed out of their mobile homes. The others died when their vehicles were washed away. One victim, only 16 years old, lost his life when he was attempting to string telephone lines and fell out of his boat.
Over 57 homes were destroyed, and hundreds more damaged. Only four homes in the county had flood insurance.
While the damage was severe and death toll was high, Moreno and other rescuers know that it could have been substantially worse. “I truly cannot think of a single death that we could have prevented.”
After that week, Moreno also knew what kind of team he had in the Americus Fire Department. “Our guys did a phenomenal job,” the pride is obvious in his voice. “After that first night, and all of their efforts, at that point I realized that the sky was the limit for us. I was so proud of them the whole time. In that five-day period, I realized what an extraordinary group of people that I had, that the community had. I will always be proud of what we all accomplished as a team.”
He was also touched by the way citizens reacted in the aftermath. “Neighbors were helping neighbors. Strangers became friends; people from both sides of the tracks were helping each other, checking on each other. Everyone was caring for each other.”
Of course, in most small towns, helping others in times of need is simply the norm. As Rob Brown, owner of Forsyth Bar and Grill, sums it up with a shrug, “Well, what else are you going to do? You have to do something.”
That attitude, along with the efforts of all rescue agencies involved, are the reason that no disaster can ever permanently tarnish Sumter County and its seat, that “Shining City on a Hill.”