Debris left from the Flood of '94 was picked up daily throughout Albany and Dougherty County from mid-July until the end of August and transported to the landfill. (Photo courtesy of Keep Albany-Dougherty Beautiful)
ALBANY — After the waters finally receded, the real work began for those in the Good Life City who volunteered to clean up the wreckage of Albany in the wake of the Flood of ’94.
From her command post inside Albany’s downtown fire station, Keep Albany-Dougherty Beautiful (KADB) Executive Director Julia Bowles coordinated cleanup efforts throughout the community and directed the efforts of more than 33,000 volunteers as they diligently worked to remove debris from some 9,200 homes in the area.
“It was a massive effort,” Bowles said as she recently reflected on those days two decades ago when the worst natural disaster in Georgia’s history had Albany directly in its cross-hairs. “It’s really mind-boggling to think about all the wreckage and what all went into trying to clean things up.”
Bowles, who had been in her position as KADB’s head for about two years when the disaster struck, said she really had no idea what she was getting into when county and city leaders called on her to direct the massive cleanup.
“It was really something,” said Bowles. “I was contacted on a Friday and we had a briefing on Saturday and then we got to work on Monday morning, and I worked for 33 straight days from 7 in the morning until 10 at night.”
In fact, KADB occupied the command center and had volunteers operating four telephone lines from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. for five straight weeks as residents continued to call in for help dealing with debris in their homes and on their property.
“We had no plan for this,” Bowles said. “I had to sort of invent the process as we went along. The wonderful thing, though, is we had so many volunteers available to help out. All we had to do was get them to the right places and get the trash and debris ready to be taken to the landfill.”
Bowles and her team started by dividing the county into 10 sections, using index cards to write down the names and addresses of flooded properties. They then assigned volunteer teams, made up typically of eight members, to go to each address and begin “gutting” the houses.
“I hate to use the word ‘gutting,’ but that’s what we had to do,” Bowles said. “We had to remove everything — the ceilings, the Sheetrock, appliances, everything, right down to the frame and the foundation.”
When the houses were done, the debris was piled on the curb where public works could pick up the waste and transport it to the county landfill. Bowles said that when the volunteers had finally finished cleaning out all of the debris, roughly 926,296 tons of debris had been taken to the landfill.
According to KADB records, volunteers assisting in the cleanup efforts were asked to wear hard-sole shoes, gloves, masks and protective eye-wear, as well as get a tetanus toxoid vaccination to avoid injury and illness because to the hazardous nature of the work.
Those who could were also asked to bring flashlights, a first-aid kit, hard hats, trash bags, cleaning supplies and tools — such as crowbars, hammers, pliers, saws, wrenches, screwdrivers and long wooden sticks — for turning things over, scaring away animals that might have taken up residence in the abandoned homes and moving electrical wires.
Bowles said those from out of town, who comprised the majority of volunteers since most Albanians were either affected directly or already helping family members who were affected, were told they were responsible for finding their own lodging as well, since hotels, shelters and non-flooded residences were filled to capacity.
“I remember the first call I got after we went on television was from a guy in Pennsylvania who wanted to help,” Bowles recalled. “Even after I told him everything he needed to know, he still said ‘all right’ and put a mattress in the back of his truck and came anyway. You see, he had been through a disaster himself, so he knew what kind of help we needed.”
Bowles said it was that kind of spirit, usually shown by people who had suffered their own hardships, that made things work so well when it came to volunteers.
“Most of the people who help in these situations have been touched by a disaster,” said Bowles. “You want to give back, because of the support and help you received. That’s the beauty of it.”
Although they were too busy trying to assign people to affected areas and answer phones to keep record of where people came from, Bowles said there were people like that man from Pennsylvania who came from all over the United States to lend a hand.
Bowles said out-of-town church and civic groups brought busloads of volunteers to Albany to stay as long as they were needed.
As many Albanians started to get their own property and that of their friends and relatives under control, they too lent a hand in the cleanup efforts and exhibited the kind of spirit that Bowles feels makes Albany a great community.
Since those intense days 20 years ago, KADB has earned numerous awards, and become one of Albany’s strongest volunteer organizations. Last year, 36,319 volunteers donated 84,722 service hours to numerous KADB programs, such as Operation Pill Drop, Stash the Trash, river cleanup and others.
“We’ve won over 40 national awards,” Bowles said. “Keep America Beautiful recognizes this as one of the top offices in the nation. It’s top because of volunteers. It says so much about the community. They care about their environment.”
Even with all the things Bowles and the rest of the KADB team have going on these days, Bowles has clear memories of those days cleaning up after the flood and watching the human spirit triumph over adversity. Despite the difficulties inherent in that type of situation, Bowles pointed out repeatedly how much was accomplished because people cared.
“Nowhere when they plan for disasters do they plan for volunteers,” Bowles said. “When you have a disaster and the government is dealing with all the complex elements of that disaster, it’s up to volunteers to get in there and help to get things done.”