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Flood of ’94 was the news event of a lifetime

The Independence Day holiday in 1994 fell on a Monday. At that time, we were putting out this newspaper and printing many others at our printing plant in Barnesville. We moved production of some papers up and others back to enjoy a long weekend at the beach. Weather coverage then was not what it is now but we heard it had rained a lot in Barnesville and more was on the way so we came back early as a precaution. On Hwy. 41 between Forsyth and Barnesville, we crossed a normally placid little stream which looked like the Chattooga River in the film (italics) Deliverance (end italics). We knew then there could be trouble. It was raining hard. It rained hard all night and the downpour continued all day July 5. We initially thought low-lying areas would take the brunt of the damage. Barnesville is largely at pretty good elevation so we thought our building would be fine and it was until the water overwhelmed the city storm water system. Debris clogged pipes and grates and eventually Towaliga Creek was running so full it backed up into the storm drains, or so it was explained to me. Water started rising in the road and our parking lot. We bought some sump pumps just in case. We had a full warehouse with stacks of very expensive newsprint inside. Keeping it dry was essential. The rain went on unabated. During the night July 5, it came through the walls and under the doors. We fired up the pumps and I got on a forklift to stack newsprint rolls five high instead of three high so as to minimize the number at floor level. Sometime in the wee hours, I realized that the water I was pumping out was just coming back in elsewhere. There was nowhere for it to go. I also realized I was riding around in knee deep water on an electric forklift. So, I quit. I donned a pair of chest waders and ventured outside. In the center of Greenwood Street, the water came over the top of the waders. I went back inside, dried off, climbed atop a table and went to sleep. At daybreak, we learned the dam at Barnesville’s reservoir had burst and the city’s potable water was escaping downstream at prodigious rates. Over the next few days, we checked in periodically on the Herculean effort to build a temporary dam there. I had never seen anything like it and I doubt I ever will again. Only the recovery effort after the tornado of 2011 came close. As soon as the skies cleared a little, Mo Turner was on the phone. I took two cameras, a case of 35 millimeter film canisters and went to his farm in Yatesville. We climbed into his open-cockpit Piper Cub, taxied out onto the paved road and took off. Viewed from the air, the damage was almost too much to comprehend. Bridges and roads were out everywhere. Small streams were raging. The Towaliga, Ocmulgee and Flint Rivers were all hundreds of yards out of their banks. River water lapped at highway bridges. Water, stained nearly the color of red Georgia clay, was everywhere. One railroad bridge south of here just vanished. We circled over the river at High Falls State Park and watched as two single wide mobile homes washed over the dam. They looked like surfboards careening around after the rider has fallen off. Entire fields of crops were just washed away along with the topsoil that nourished them. All that water had to go south and it meted out death and destruction in Macon and Montezuma. In Albany, coffins floated out of the ground and down the Flint. GBI agents and DNR rangers in boats had to track them down and try to identify the occupants -a grisly task. Though it didn’t seem possible, we dried out. The temporary dam got built. Eventually water service was restored and, slowly but surely, roads and bridges were rebuilt or patched up. Most importantly, no one hereabouts was killed or injured. For reporters, it was the event of a lifetime. We still consider our writing and photography some of the best work done here in the 40 plus years Laura and I have run your hometown newspaper. The tragic side of the story was the damage to property – public and private. The uplifting side – the good news – was how so many people pitched in to help restore normalcy. People worked to rebuild county roads with their own tractors or skid steers. Neighbors helped neighbors. Farmers helped other farmers replant devastated crops. A lot of local folks opened their homes so people down in Macon could come here to shower. There was no running water there for what seemed like weeks. The Great Flood was catastrophic. They say it was a once in every 500 years event. I hope they are right. But, for chroniclers of local history like us, it was the news event of a lifetime.

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