Ben's Blog: Looking back at the Flood

Ben's Blog: Looking back at the Flood

Flood Baseball

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - For the first week and a half or so of our coverage of the Flood of '94, I spent most of each day anchoring. Saturday July 16 was my first opportunity, since the night I spent on the flooding Kinchafoonee, to get out and do some reporting.

Some places were still under water, but the cleanup was underway in other neighborhoods. My news director suggested I do a story about how people were trying to return to their normal lives after so much tragedy and disruption.

As we sat in his office brainstorming good ways to tell that story, he said he knew of a youth baseball tournament that should include some teams from areas that were flooded.  I grabbed a camera and headed over to Sherwood Park.

I found a game between South Dougherty County and Lee County. I asked if there were a player whose home had been flooded. There were several, but I chose to see if 13 year-old Johnathan Woodham would talk to me. He said, "sure."

I interviewed him in the dugout during the game. Interviewing kids can be dicey. Often, they don't say much. That wasn't the case with Johnathan. He gave one of the best interviews I've ever conducted. He was also the hero of the game.

20 years later, Flood Baseball remains one of the most memorable stories I've ever done. When people ask if I have a favorite story from my career, it's the first one that comes to mind. Sometimes a reporter gets lucky and runs into an awesome person with an awesome story to tell. That's what happened to me that day, thanks to Johnathan.

Click on this link to watch Flood Baseball.

The Greatest Compliment

A few days into the flood back in 1994, as the Flint River continued to rise, though not nearly so rapidly as it did on July 7th, I answered a phone call that I'll never forget.

I walked into the newsroom one evening to take a break after anchoring for several hours. The phones were still ringing off their hooks at that time. I picked up the phone at my desk before I even sat down. The woman on the other end of the line asked if she should evacuate her home.

I got the caller's address, then put her on hold. I asked around the newsroom to see if we had a crew in the woman's area. We didn't. I asked if we had gotten a notification from the Emergency Operations Center of a new evacuation order there. We hadn't.

I walked to a wall where a large map was hanging. It showed what areas would be under water during a "100 year flood." We had long since passed that level, but it was still a good barometer for where water might be. The map showed water near the caller's home.

I got back on the phone and explained what I had learned and asked if she could see water from her house. The woman told me it had started to flow across the street down the block. I told her she did not need to worry about a wall of water rushing toward her. I explained, however, that the river was still rising, and no one was sure when it would stop. I told her since there was water so close to her home, it was quite possible water could end up in her home.

I suggested that the woman start getting things together and making a plan to leave, but I assured her the city would make certain she knew if she needed to get out. By that time, any time an evacuation order was issued, Albany firefighters would drive down the streets blowing their horns and screaming through bullhorns and banging on doors telling people to evacuate immediately.

The woman responded, "Oh, the firemen just came through here telling us to get out, but I wanted to check with y'all first." I politely told her she should follow their advice.

When I hung up the phone, my first reaction was, "That woman is crazy." Firefighters with bullhorns just told her to drop what she was doing and leave, and her first reaction was to pick up the phone and call the television station.

Then, I thought about it for a moment and realized that phone call was the greatest compliment she could pay WALB. I imagine she had been watching our station nearly non-stop for the previous three or four days. We had become her lifeline. She trusted us so much, she by God wasn't going to leave her home until WALB told her to.

I've often thought about that woman over the years, wondering what became of her and her home. Our coverage during the flood had a great impact on her, but her phone call had a great impact on me. It showed me how important our work can be and taught me to focus on serving our viewers every day.

That lady on the other end of the line that night wasn't crazy. She was a dedicated viewer who, with a simple question, taught me a lesson that shaped my career. And that's the greatest compliment I can give her.

My night in a tree

“The good Lord willing, and the creek don’t rise.” It’s a uniquely southern saying. You know what it means. You promise to meet some future obligation, as long as a serious emergency doesn't prevent it.

Immediately following the 11:00 news on July 6, 1994, my news director met me in the newsroom and told me he was hearing chatter on our police scanner about rescues on North Hampton Road. The creek WAS rising. I quickly ran home, put on some jeans and boots, and hustled up to Lee County with photographer Arnold Sinclair.

We couldn’t get far down North Hampton. Dozens of people were trapped in their homes. Some had to chop their way out of their attics through their roofs and wait to be rescued from the Muckalee Creek’s raging floodwaters.

Marines were driving people out of the water in a 7-ton truck. Others were brought out in boats, shaken but grateful to be back on dry ground.

We got word that a call had gone out for anyone with a boat to head over to Kinchafoonee Creek Road where similar rescues were taking place. Arnold and I rushed there and found a similar scene. I asked one young man who just showed up with his boat if we could ride with him to get video of the rescues, and he agreed.

As we rode against the fast-moving water, we met a group of people gathered around a tree. An older couple was sitting in a motor-less boat that was tied to the tree. Several young men were standing in the water holding onto the boat or the tree or both. They had tried to escape the rising water from the Kinchafoonee, but realized with no motor on the boat, it was too dangerous.

I suddenly realized I was taking up a spot in a safer boat that could be used by someone who needed rescued. Arnold and I decided to swap spots with the folks in the other boat, so they could get out. That’s me in the green striped shirt in the picture.

Over the next several hours, many rescue boats went by us on their way to save people trapped in their homes. Each time, the rescuers would holler at our little group clutching the tree asking if we were okay. Each time, we said we were, and they promised to come back for us soon.

Arnold made it out before I did. It’s a good thing, too. By the time I hitched a ride to a safer area then waded through knee-high water, the spot where we had parked our news van was under several feet of rushing water. Our vehicle could easily have been washed away if Arnold hadn’t been able to move it in time.

My night hanging onto that tree remains one of my most vivid memories from the Flood of ’94. Nobody panicked, even though it was a situation where panic would have been understood. Those guys standing in the water were incredibly patient, even as the creek crept past their waists and up their chests. Those volunteer boat drivers worked quickly and cooperatively to make sure everyone got out safely.

The damage was immense, but no lives were lost there. The outcome could have been much different. I’m privileged to have witnessed the heroism and selflessness that ensured that, even though the creeks did rise, the good Lord was willing to allow us all to see another day.

The story of a lifetime

Most journalists work years before covering the stories of their careers. Mine came early on.

In July 1994, I was a young news anchor, just a few years out of college. I became the 6:00 and 11:00 weekday anchor at WALB barely a year earlier.

When the flood of ’94 hit, it was clear right away that it was an historic event. It didn't take long for me to realize that, no matter how long or where I may work in this business, I would never cover a more important story.

During the first week or so of the flood, WALB never went off the air, even though at that time we did not normally broadcast 24 hours a day. I would generally go on the television early in the afternoon with the latest information. I may or may not take a break before our regularly scheduled newscasts and may or may not take a break during prime time.

We needed as many people as possible in the field, so my co-anchor Dawn was out reporting for that first week or so. That meant I was anchoring solo for 10 to 12 hours a day.

WALB truly was a lifeline for south Georgia, giving out information that literally helped save lives. Our reporters in the field were doing the tough work. I just sat on the news set and passed along the news they gathered to our viewers.

Even today, it’s common for people to approach me and tell me they appreciate the work I did during the flood. I always tell them I was but a small part in a large effort. It’s an effort for

which I remain imminently proud.

Albany’s most trying time was the time when WALB was most essential to our viewers. It is the part of my professional life for which I am most proud, and no matter what else I do in my career, it will always remain so.

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