Can it really have been 25 years ago? It sometimes seems like yesterday when the Great Flood of 1994 swallowed a large swatch of Georgia, including Macon, where I lived at the time.
It’s hard to explain to people who didn’t experience it what it was like to see a jon boat floating through a busy intersection where just days earlier you had sat in your car waiting on the light to change. To see your favorite restaurant, where you and your friends gathered after a long day of work under five feet of water. To see the signing marking the on-ramp to Interstate 75 being the only thing sticking up above the water.
I had seen floods before on TV. Just the year before, communities along the Mississippi River had flooded. But this was different, because it was happening to us.
I had never seen it rain as hard as it did the day before the floodwaters poured over the banks of the Ocmulgee River. I had never seen so much water as I saw after the flood waters rose. Yet for all the water, water everywhere, there was not a drop to drink. The taps went dry for 19 days.
I remember flying in a helicopter with Mayor Tommy Olmstead and Gov. Zell Miller as they surveyed the damage. We flew over the treatment plant. It was almost complete submerged.
It’s somewhat ironic that the Ocmulgee River is usually a quiet river. Except for a couple of parks along its banks, the river is virtually hidden from view, except for a couple of bridges that link downtown with East Macon.
But on July 5, Tropical Storm Alberto roared out of the gulf, through Florida and Alabama, then parked itself over the Ocmulgee’s headwaters, where the storm dumped 14 inches of rain in less than a day.
It would be days before the water receded. Montezuma and Albany would be hit worse than Macon, so I don’t want to diminish the tragedies there. But you never appreciate the sound of a flushing toilet until it has been silenced. For nearly three weeks, we had no water to cook with, no water to bathe with, no water to flush with.
For those three agonizing weeks, there were more Port-a-Potties in Macon than famed Yoshino cherry trees. The Macon Telegraph, where I worked at the time, reserved a hotel room in nearby Forsyth, where employees could sign up for times to go take a shower. Lots of us stood in line at fire stations to fill containers with fresh water. I used a small saucepan of water each morning to take a sponge bath, brush my teeth and shave. The leftover water was poured into the toilet tank, and after a few days, I had enough water for a single flush.
Being without running water for three weeks was bad. But we realized it could have been worse. Up and down the Ocmulgee and Flint rivers, flood water swamped homes and businesses. And at least we still had electricity, and thus, air conditioning. No AC during three weeks of a Middle Georgia summer would have been awful.
The flood was certainly a challenging time. But it was also an amazing time. People came together to help each other. We were all in it together, and if we could do something to help someone, we did it.
That’s a lesson I wish we’d take to heart all the time.