“It came up and washed my childhood away.”
That, as best I can remember a quarter-century later, was what was running through my mind on a July 1994 boat ride on the Flint River. It wasn’t, however, the same Flint River I’d always known.
This was a monstrously engorged Flint River, one swollen far beyond its banks. One that had the boat I was riding in floating in brown water at rooftop level with buildings, like the old City Hall, where I was a part-time night-watch patrolman during college. And a building where my friends and I ate burgers and fries when it was Alice’s Restaurant. (It wasn’t really called that, but we listened more to Jefferson Starship than we did Arlo Guthrie.) And even before that, another building where I got my first haircut. On Saturdays, farmer Wayne McDaniel came into town to break out his clippers, which always nicked my ear or neck. I can still smell the Wildroot hair tonic.
The water was high up the walls of the Baker County Courthouse, where I sometimes went as a kid to hear my barrister uncle plead with much theatrical flair the cases of various defendants. The house where I was raised, sitting high on a hill that had seemed so insurmountable, also would have that foul water running through it.
It slowly sank in. A surreal, transformational moment. That instant, I knew things would never be the same. Even though I no longer lived in my hometown, it had been a constant for me, a familiar place with familiar landmarks that connected me to my memories.
People anthropomorphize nature, talk about it unleashing its fury, especially when hurricane-force winds, tornadoes and actual hurricanes barrel through, knocking down trees, snapping power lines and poles, and tearing roofs off homes and buildings. We’ve seen too much of that in the last few years.
The Flood of ’94 was different. While it was preceded by Tropical Storm Alberto’s drenching rains and winds, the flood was more methodical, unrelenting and overwhelming as its magnitude was slowly realized.
At first, we were told by forecasters to expect severe flooding, but with each update it got progressively worse – going from a 100-year flood to one you would expect to hit maybe once in a five-century period. NOAA climate officials said a few months later that floodwaters in Georgia covered a land area equivalent to the size of Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined.
To borrow from Winston Churchill, in many ways the Flood of ’94 was Albany and Southwest Georgia’s finest hour. People filled sandbags to protect places like the Civic Center. Folks opened their homes to the thousands who were displaced. For a time, the floodwaters breached the walls we have erected racially, politically and socioeconomically.
Facing a massive threat that literally cut Albany and Dougherty County in half and forced a third of the city’s population to evacuate their homes, we found we had more in common than we had separating us. We had, as nearly as we have ever had, a OneAlbany.
Still, I also have some fond memories from the Flood of ’94. My family in Newton had to evacuate their homes, so our four-member household swelled to 10 or so for a while. I hated the reason why my parents, siblings and their spouses had to “visit for a spell,” but I loved having everybody together, every single minute of it.
My sister, Trudy, was pregnant at the time, giving birth to my nephew Ryan in September. She had Nicholas when the lesser, but still 500-yearish, Flood of ’98 struck.
Sensing a trend, this caused me great concern about the prospects 2002. Fortunately for southwest Georgia, she and Gary had only two kids.
The flood also reminded me why I never moved to Atlanta, where you spend a significant part of your life commuting to work. All four of Albany and Dougherty County’s east-west connecting bridges were closed. My wife, Cheryl, and I had a 90-something-mile drive from our home east of the river to Sylvester, up to Cordele, over to Leslie, and down to Leesburg and, eventually, downtown Albany, where we worked – her at the courthouse, me at the newspaper.
If you don’t feel like you and your wife, husband or significant other talk enough, try commuting together for three and a half hours or so a day. You’ll talk about things – life, kids, family, meal planning for 10 folks, and even music – like just how much Jefferson Starship you’re going to listen to on this trip.
And then there was probably the most uplifting day after the flood. Both symbolic and a physical relief, the Broad Avenue Bridge (since replaced) was reopened to pedestrian traffic.
East and west again would meet. With still rapidly moving floodwaters lapping just below the bridge.
I’m a fan of track records. I never go to a new restaurant until it’s been open at least a month. When I go to plays, it’s usually several performances into the run when everybody has their lines down. I never buy the first version of new technology, which is usually buggy.
Cutting 90 minutes off your commute, admittedly, was appealing.
Being one of the first to cross a just reopened bridge over high, swift floodwater, on the other hand, was not.
I wanted to wait until the next day, but Cheryl was insistent. She was walking. So, I kissed her bye and she walked across the Broad Avenue Bridge. I waited until she was safely across, then walked back to our car for the long drive.
Which is when it hit me. If Cheryl could brave it, so could I. I turned around.
There was a lot of chatting as my group crossed the bridge. Everyone was talkative and in a good mood, having cut out an Atlanta-caliber commute time. A few minutes later, I called Cheryl from my work desk to tell her how much I loved her and how she’d inspired me to make The Great Crossing after her.
“I cannot believe,” she responded lovingly, “that you made me go first. I was a sacrificial lamb.”
Which, I tried to explain, is not quite the right metaphor since sacrificial lambs don’t survive the ordeal. Critters launched into outer space, on the other hand, do have a reasonable shot at survival, provided, of course, they don’t push a button that blows the hatch during orbit and the parachute properly deploys on the way down.
The chute, by the way, did not deploy at all on the space chimp analogy, which quickly burned to a cinder. I’ve learned since the flood that sometimes a bad metaphor makes for a good marriage, so just be a lamb about it. I also learned that Jefferson Starship’s “Miracle” has some sexually suggestive lyrics if you really pay attention.
And I learned that even bad circumstances can lead to special times with loved ones you might otherwise have missed. I learned disasters can sweep away buildings, but not precious memories.
But I also have wondered.
What would Albany and southwest Georgia be like today if that spirit of community from the summer of 1994 had not, like the floodwaters, eventually subsided? More importantly, how can we get it back?
It’s a question worth pondering, even after 25 years.