Former Albany State University President Portia Holmes-Shields.
ALBANY — In 1994, Tropical Storm Alberto dumped more than two feet of rain on the region, displaced 22,000 people and damaged 6,500 buildings. The torrent of water flowing south caused the Flint River to crest at 43 feet (24 feet above flood stage) and consumed nearly two thirds of the 204-acre Albany State University campus.
Former Albany State University President Portia Holmes-Shields vividly remembers when she got her first look at the university’s flood-ravaged campus, and she talked about the mud.
“The first time I was standing there looking at the campus, there was mud and planks running from building to building,” Shields said. “I wondered, ‘How can I do this?’ It was probably the most challenging experience of my life.”
Shields, speaking to The Albany Herald from her home in Nashville, Tenn., said the university’s students, faculty and staff handled the devastation well.
“Walking those planks became almost a joyful walk because we knew better days were on the way,” said Shields, who oversaw much of the reconstruction.
A significant element of ASU’s $153 million flood-recovery program was the expansion of the campus eastward across Radium Springs Road, with the goal of removing the remaining buildings in the floodplain at the completion of their current life cycle. In the 1996-97 period, ASU built three new student housing buildings and a dining hall along the ridge on the west side of Radium Springs Road.
The university purchased a large area of land east of Radium Springs Road in the sand dunes and started building this new section of campus, beginning with the ACAD building and HPER gymnasium, completed in 1997.
Later, a new student center was built, followed shortly by two more new student housing buildings.
“Now when you drive down Radium Springs Drive you will see the best looking institution in Southwest Georgia,” Shields said. “That campus is something our students, faculty, staff and all of Albany can be proud of.”
Ironically, the flood that nearly destroyed Albany State University also breathed new life into it.
“Looking back, the flood was one of the best things to ever happen to Albany State,” Shields said. “I don’t know what would have happened to that institution if not for that. The school was at a stalemate. Enrollment was stagnant (just more than 3,000 at the time of the flood and 3,800 in 2013). The governor (Zell Miller) kept promising money for us, but we never saw much of it until after the flood.
“Now, prospective students see that beautiful campus and they say, ‘Ah. this is the place for me.’”
The Dougherty County School System also was hit hard by the flood. According to Facilities Director Bob Fowler, four schools located on the city’s south side were damaged beyond repair — Martin Luther King Jr. Middle, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, Coachman Park Elementary and Flintside Elementary — and were eventually demolished.
The buildings on those sites were razed, including the removal of all foundations and underground structures, and the grounds brought to a stable and maintainable greenspace. The sites were eventually deeded to the city as public green spaces. The MLK Middle site was converted to a walking track/exercise area.
The flooded MLK Jr. Middle School was not rebuilt during this time because of plans to include two new middle schools — Albany and Robert Cross.
The three flooded elementary schools were replaced with new schools on new sites through the use of FEMA funds. The new Alice Coachman and MLK Jr. Elementary schools retained their original names, while the other new school was named Lamar Reese Elementary School.
The three new schools were built at a coast of nearly $28 million.
Other schools were damaged but repaired, the most notable being Monroe High School, which got 4 inches of water in the building. Repairs required the removal and replacement of the floor tile on the first floor and the gym’s wooden floor.