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Could Macon’s infrastructure withstand another Tropical Storm Alberto?

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Macon flood of 1994

It’s been 25 years since Tropical Storm Alberto barreled into Georgia, killing 33 people and bringing floodwaters that left parts of Macon without water or power for weeks.

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There was no running water in Macon for nearly three weeks in the summer of 1994 after deadly Tropical Storm Alberto struck the midstate.

The day before the water failure started, on July 5, 1994, there was some optimism that the water treatment plant would remain safe despite days of incessant rain causing rising water levels.

The location of the plant — Riverside Drive on the bank of the Ocmulgee River — left it susceptible to flooding, especially if the levee was breached.

There were flash-flood and severe-storm warnings as more than 15 inches of rain fell in parts of Middle Georgia.

The Ocmulgee’s water level topped 24 feet on July 5, 1994. The river would need to rise another six feet to get to a dangerous level.

The rainfall stopped by July 6. River and creek levels continued to rise. The forecast couldn’t predict that the river’s levee would breach.

The Ocmulgee crested at 35 feet, leaving the water-treatment plant flooded and more than 150,000 people living without clean, running water.

Alberto’s fallout was described by Macon Mayor Tommy Olmstead as the worst natural disaster in the city’s history.

Flooding took the lives of 31 people in the state. Eleven people died in Middle Georgia.

For at least 19 days, the Macon plant shutdown not only impacted showering habits and other daily functions like flushing toilets, but also brought some businesses to a halt.

Even residents of unincorporated Bibb County who were reliant on wells had to worry about water contamination.

Across the region, well over 100 roads were blocked off. Sections of Interstate 75, Interstate 475 and state Route 247 were closed in Macon.

In total, at least 558 homes and 41 businesses across five counties were damaged by flooding.

Houston Lake became a mudfield.

Downtown Montezuma was washed under after a dam broke. Macon County farmland “became better suited for growing rice,” a July 9, 1994, Telegraph article said.

There were 2,500 people evacuated from the 8,700 acre Lake Blackshear reservoir in Cordele.

Further south, only nine out of 80 animals survived at a Sumter County shelter.

Macon and Middle Georgia were not prepared for that level of flooding in 1994, but are they now?

Backup plan fail

“We’re planning for the worst scenario, but hoping for the best.” — Gene Holcomb, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Water and Sewage Authority, on July 5, 1994

By the time the water plant succumbed to Alberto’s wrath, the wheels were already in motion to move the plant on higher ground.

The storm also wrecked that plan.

“When the flood came, it flooded that area where they had planned to put their new plant so they gave up that idea and moved it across the river,” said Ray Shell, executive vice-president of Field and Plant Operations for the Water Authority.

Despite being heavily damaged by the flooding, the former plant remained open for another six years. The new $116 million Frank C. Amerson, Jr. Water Treatment Plant is much less prone to flooding.

The main pumping station sits atop 90 feet of concrete and steel on a 3,000-acre campus in Jones County.

There’s also Javors Lucas Lake that holds six billion gallons of water. The plant can still operate for an extended length of time without relying on the Ocmulgee, Shell said.

“Let’s say a fuel truck wrecks in the river,” he said. “We can continue drawing from the reserve and service would continue uninterrupted. That’s not a direct result of the flooding of 1994 because we already had the reservoir under construction.”

Breached levees, dam regulation

“Nature is pretty ingenious in hitting us with the unexpected,” — Telegraph Editorial, July 8, 1994

Macon-Bibb County Engineer David Fortson warned county leaders in 2018 that the levee was at-risk of faltering without some repairs.

One of the most pressing concerns involved sand boils, which can breach the one-mile levee when sand boils up because of the water pressure. Extensive work is underway to get rid of that problem.

“I believe the levee height (30 feet) is the same as it was in ’94,” Fortson wrote in an email. “So in that sense, it is in no better condition to protect the area behind it from a major flood than it was then. However, there have been a number of projects, both large and small, to strengthen the levee as it exists.”

Upkeep is better now and part of the levee wall has been resealed. Trees that could have weakened the levee if they fell are no longer standing. The Water Authority has prevented water from going into an abandoned sewer that runs along the levee, Fortson said.

One dam where there was a close call in 1994 was Tobesofkee in west Bibb. It was saved by having the gates opened enough to improve the flow rate.

There’s a strong chance that the a similar weather event like Alberto would have the same impact on dams if it occurred in 2019, said Tom Woosley, manager of the state’s Safe Dams Program.

There were 280 dams breached during the 1994 storm across southwest Georgia, including the midstate.

Safe Dams doesn’t take into account federally regulated dams, like Lake Blackshear.

A 2017 Infrastructure Report Card estimated it would cost $45 billion nationwide to fix more than 2,000 high-hazard dams. High-hazard refers to the probability of lives that would be lost if it failed.

The vast majority of the breaches in 1994 were not considered high-risk, Woosley said.

The two high-hazard dams that breached were at Leisure Lake in Houston County and at Crawford County’s Kraftsman Lake. Neither were in compliance in 1994, but have both been rebuilt, Woosley said.

The size of the dam determines the maximum amount of precipitation it should be able to handle in a storm.

“Our goal is to make sure those (high-hazard dams) meet those minimum standards, that they’re properly maintained and have adequate spillway capacity in the event that you do have some of these major storm events” Woosley said.

There were different dams in Houston County unable to withstand Alberto. Flooding took out some residences, bridges and swallowed roads.

Alberto set off the arduous task of rebuilding the Houston Lake dam, which was categorized as unstable at the time. The private lake would become public, since government money was used to restore it.

Since then, local and state engineers, as well as the Houston County Emergency Management Agency, periodically inspect the dam.

“They know when they need to open it, when they need to close it to limit the damage that’s done downstream,” Houston EMA Director Christopher Stoner said. “One of the biggest things we have to worry about is how much it’s going to back up and how much to release without causing catastrophic damage downstream.”

Some bridges were redone and road levels raised after 1994. People are also much less likely to build in flood plains because of the lack of insurance coverage or costs, Stoner said.

Macon interstate makeovers

“I’ve never seen anything like this. Georgia has never seen anything like this. ... Never in the history of Interstates 16 and 75 have those roads been blocked. Now they both are,’‘ — Gov. Zell Miller, July 7, 1994

The 1994 flood is the only time I-16 and I-75 were flooded because of the Ocmulgee’s rising water levels, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Those interstates are currently in the midst of an extensive expansion, which includes raising elevations. Flood plains are incorporated into the design process.

“Georgia DOT engineers are confident that the current placements of I-75 and I-16 in Macon-Bibb County, as well as that of the new bridges and roadways currently being added, are sufficient with regard to future Ocmulgee flooding concerns,” GDOT spokeswoman Penny Brooks wrote in an email.

The construction doesn’t make the interstates any more vulnerable to flooding, she said.

The expansion is designed to improve safety for motorists and the increasing number of tractor trailers traveling to and from the Savannah port and other places.

The three phases of construction are on track to be finished in 2021. The target is to have the final projects completed in 2028, although that could change depending on when those phases are put out for bid, Brooks said.

Telegraph archives was used in this report.