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Rebuilding of Newton from Flood of 1994 had downtown go to higher ground

While the downtown business area had already started moving west, the Great Flood speeded the transition

An aerial view of downtown Newton as seen in the days immediately following the Flood of 1994. (Albany Herald file photo)

An aerial view of downtown Newton as seen in the days immediately following the Flood of 1994. (Albany Herald file photo)

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Molly Moyer, then 17, and Holly Hobbs, then 15, carry records from the Baker County Courthouse in downtown Newton on July 7, 1994. Water was expected to reach the first floor, but damage exceeded predictions and parts of the town that had never been flooded were soon under water. (Albany Herald file photo)

NEWTON — On July 7, 1994, evacuations began in Newton for what was expected to be a record Flint River crest of 45 feet. Expectations were that the water would flood the first floor of the downtown courthouse.

Go here to see the 20th anniversary special section on the Flood of 1994.

After seeing the devastation in Americus and Albany, businesses loaded inventory and furniture. Access to and from the city on certain roadways was restricted. Residents loaded anything that would carry belongings. Plywood was attached to buildings, and arrangements were made with neighboring Mitchell County for prisoner housing when the downtown Baker County Jail had to be emptied.

By July 10, the downtown area — including City Hall and the courthouse — was submerged under 10 feet of water. The water and electricity were off. Churches were serving donated food to evacuees in shelters despite some of these facilities being unable to offer people a place to sleep. The Georgia State Patrol, the Department of Natural Resources and the National Guard were among those brought in to help maintain order and to help with relief efforts. Some were coordinating the efforts with city and county officials working in tents.

In the end, more than 1,000 Baker County residents were forced from their homes. In the days after the flood water came in, it was unclear when they would be able to return to their houses. When the waters subsided, the task was to reconstruct Newton, a farming community of about 700 people, while its citizens attempted to rebuild their lives with mixed emotions on the flood’s impact.

Mike Tabb, who at the time was serving as the chair of the Baker County Commission, recalled the greatest impact being the number of homes that were flooded, as well as the resulting damage. It had a tremendous impact on the downtown area, which had already started a move to higher ground to the west with the construction of a new bridge and bypass.

“After dealings with FEMA or GEMA, downtown couldn’t be rebuilt, except for the courthouse,” he said. “We restored it (to look) as good as it did when it was built.”

At least $500,000 in funding came through to restore the courthouse. Not long after the damage was repaired from the 1994 flood, more flooding came through in 1998. That second flood got 18 inches deep inside the courthouse, which meant the floor in the building had to be replaced.

After the flood, federal and state agencies said they would spend money on a buyout program that included 80 damaged properties and 70 acres. A few had their houses restored, while others were razed. Some houses are still sitting empty.

“About two-thirds of Newton was flooded,” Tabb said. “(The water) backed through neighborhoods and streets and into neighborhoods not flooded before. Many of those homes were replaced. The smaller, older houses never really recovered.”

When the water was still shallow enough, there were children playing in it — something that was discouraged after it became evident that Albany’s storm system had been overwhelmed with flood waters, bringing some of the raw sewage downstream.

“There wasn’t anything they could do,” the former Baker County commissioner said. “It was just flooded.”

In Baker County, there was enough damage to downtown to justify sizable disaster funds for the replacement of the emergency medical services building and the jail. A former elementary school building was renovated into a courthouse, where it remains today, with the help of free labor from the Georgia Department of Corrections. The city also got a new water system with a relocated well after the hill on which the town’s well — a spot that had never flooded — went under water, contaminating the well.

About $2 million in funding was made available to help with that.

While the area did not recover in some ways as well as it could have, in other respects Newton came out just as good, if not better, with new government buildings or more ideal housing situations after residents moved further west.

“We came out pretty good in restoring what we had,” Tabb said. “Overall, we recovered. We recovered; we did the best we could with what we had to work with.

“… In many respects, we came out better than we were. I wish we could have built everything new.”

As with everywhere else affected by the Flood of ’94, the people of Newton proved to be resilient.

“People as a whole came together and cooperated to recover from what was going on,” Tabb said. “I would have loved to see more recovery, (but we were) realistic to know that we couldn’t afford it. Some didn’t move out of trailers.

“I didn’t get to work for two or three months. I helped with recovery. When it was all said and done, the people remembered who they saw. I learned a lot about disaster recovery.”

Among those who saw a long recovery from the flood was V.T. Akridge, a lifelong resident of Newton. Believing the water would not get into his home, he merely locked the doors and walked away. The water ended up rising in his home to a height of 5 feet. It took six months to repair so that he could move back in.

For him, at least, the greatest impact was the hard work and the expense to the tune of $70,000 to get his house restored.

“(I thought) the water could not possibly come inside,” he recalled. “We lost all the furniture. I didn’t believe it would possibly happen. I locked the door and just walked away. I was thinking that they had to be wrong; (flood waters) had never gotten in before.”

The silver lining was that his house got new wiring, as well as insulation. In 1998, he prepared for the water to reach a depth of 6 inches — which it never did.

“(In 1998) I was altogether too ready, and the water didn’t come close to the house,” Akridge said.

His attitude toward the Flood of ’94 did not reflect those of others who lived in the Newton area at the time.

“Most people took the ’94 flood seriously,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone else who locked their door and walked away like I did.”

When reflecting on the change in Newton since then, Akridge described it as “a mixed bag.” The biggest change, from his perspective, was the relocation of downtown to a higher elevated area presumed to be less prone to flooding. Most people came back, and those who didn’t built new homes.

“In some ways, yes, and in other ways, no,” Akridge said when asked his opinion as to whether Newton recovered. “(What I miss most) is the old town. It was centered around downtown. Now it is spread out.”

After all the hard work and the cost of trying to rebuild Newton, there is one thing the lifelong resident said has not changed.

“The people are very much the same,” Akridge said. “There was a lot of cooperation in trying to help each other. They were all in it together.”