Not if, when

See 41 photos from the 1990 flood

In the weeks before an unforeseen 15-inch rainfall caused Augusta's worst flood in decades, the city's emergency preparedness office was focused on something entirely different.


"At the time we were much more into hazardous materials, tornadoes, things like that," recalled Pam Tucker, who was Augusta's emergency management director during the Oct. 12, 1990, flood.

Before dawn , two tropical storms - Marco and Klaus - converged over Augusta, turning streets into raging rivers and transforming four counties into a national disaster area.

"It was an awakening experience," Mrs. Tucker said. "It caught so many people by surprise."

With Atlanta's catastrophic September floods fresh in everyone's memory - and the anniversary of Augusta's 1990 deluge approaching - one simple question gets asked more often than any other: Could it happen again?

Even with better technology, more than $70 million in flood-mitigation projects, newly updated flood maps and stricter laws governing development, experts agree on two things: Columbia and Richmond counties are safer from floods today than they were in 1990, but if concentrated storms ever dumped 15 inches of rain at one time, the consequences could be equally devastating.

"A lot of people think if they're not on the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) flood map, then they're safe," Mrs. Tucker said. "But no matter what the maps say, everyone lives in a flood zone. It's just a matter of how much rain it takes to get flooded."

James and Jennifer Gray, who moved into their Butler Place home in Augusta in 1997, aren't required to buy flood insurance, but they have a policy anyway.

"We do it as a precaution, even if we don't have to," Mrs. Gray said. Their home backs up to Rae's Creek, which overflowed into the yard and pool in 1990 and came dangerously close to the home again in 1997.

Since then, there haven't been any real problems, in part because of the many flood-control efforts along the creek.

"It's definitely better, but we still worry - enough to have bought flood insurance," Mrs. Gray said. "It's still a narrow creek, and when we get these bad rains, 'the cup runneth over,' as they say."

Like Augusta, fast-growing Columbia County has made significant investments to ward off property damage from flash floods. But for every mitigation project designed to reduce damage, new development creates more areas that could be affected.

Nineteen years ago, when floods washed out creek crossings and bridges along Hereford Farm, Stevens Creek and Hardy-McManus roads, those areas were sparsely populated. The county's population has since mushroomed from 66,910 in 1990 to an estimated 110,627 today.

"That's a lot more people, and we've had to build a lot more homes for them in a lot more places," said Mrs. Tucker, who today is Columbia County's emergency services director. "We also have more development to support the population growth - we have Lowe's and Walmart and Home Depot. These are all multimillion-dollar, long-term projects."

Protecting all the new growth from floods involves both regulation and prevention. Flood-mitigation projects have been undertaken by Columbia County's Stormwater Utility, which assesses fees to homeowners to finance projects designed to prevent flood damage.

One of the most successful projects was the elevation of a portion of Stevens Creek Road almost nine feet in an area known for frequent, dangerous flooding. The county used stormwater fees and a FEMA hazard mitigation grant to finance the work.

"Today, we're looking at a lot more projects that are similar to that one," Mrs. Tucker said.

T hough Augusta hasn't grown as fast as Columbia County, its long history builds in a very different set of challenges when it comes to preventing floods, said Terri Turner, Augusta's assistant zoning and development administrator.

"We've done a lot of mitigation and learned a lot of lessons since 1990," she said. "But if it happened again with that much rain, I'd have to say it would be catastrophic."

The county and FEMA recently updated and fine-tuned flood-hazard maps that identify whether property will require flood insurance. Though the maps were updated with the best available knowledge, they are not a guarantee against flooding.

"Our new flood maps were accepted by the (Augusta) Commission and went into effect Sept. 25," she said. "What has happened over time is that, anything in the white part of the map, people think it's not in a flood zone, and that isn't a correct assumption."

The new maps show areas that are not part of the formal regulatory floodplain but remain subject to flooding.

One such area, known to flood but not in the "official" flood zone, is the Hyde Park community off Dan Bowles Road. Its history of floods goes back decades, and the area continues to experience problems today, despite improvements that include enlarged, paved drainage ditches.

"It's like a big saucer," said Charles Utley, a veteran member of the Hyde Park and Aragon Park Improvement Committee. "They have made improvements, but the low-lying areas still flood."

Part of the problem is runoff from as far away as Gordon Highway. Flash flooding and overflowing ditches still affect homes in the Clara Jenkins School area and along Leona and Goldenrod streets.

"It's not going in the houses like it used to, but it will come up to the steps or it will cover the street ," Mr. Utley said.

Ms. Turner said it would be impossible for any map or modeling to predict all consequences in all areas.

"Too much rain in such a short period of time is just bad, wherever it falls," she said. "And each event is unique. One will never mirror another. It may intensify on another side of town, or rain over a longer period of time. But no two are alike."

Augusta-Richmond County's population has grown by only 10,307 since 1990, according to Planning Director Paul DeCamp. But many of the areas that were flood prone 19 years ago remain equally vulnerable today.

Will Augusta flood again? Rain events that drop 15 to 20 inches in a concentrated area are statistically rare - but history has shown they do occur, and can recur, said Georgia State Climatologist David Stooksbury.

"You can expect a 24-hour, 8-inch rainfall to occur about once every 100 years," he said. "Normally, floods don't occur from one day of rain. It is usually several days preceding it. So the antecedent moisture conditions of the soil are quite critical to flooding events also."

Since the big flood, more than $70 million in flood mitigation projects have been completed along major creek and drainage areas in the county. Many more remain in the planning stages, especially along the Augusta Canal, which overflowed in 1990 and helped intensify flood damage downtown.

Because the historic canal is a direct route for water to enter downtown, it is a main focus of ongoing evaluation by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is cost-sharing flood risk studies to recommend improvements to reduce future damage.

"From our perspective, we're concentrating on the Augusta Canal at this point," said Alan Garrett, the chief of project management and civil works for the corps' Savannah District.

The corps has recommended flood projects totaling $17.5 million, according to a 2008 status report on the plan, of which

$5.8 million would be needed for canal modifications. The rest would be allocated to flood control along Rocky Creek.

Specifically, consultants have suggested automation of four of the canal floodgates so they could be opened rapidly if needed , and the creation of a 750-foot spillway to redirect rising water into the Savannah River instead of downtown.

"Under the current laws, those projects would be cost-shared

65 percent federal and 35 percent non federal," Mr. Garrett said. Thus, the total package (including Augusta Canal and Rocky Creek improvements) would qualify for $9.5 million in federal dollars and $8 million in matching funds.

Flood hazard mitigation is an ongoing process that can save more money than the projects cost, he said.

Residents, however, must make their own decisions on whether to buy flood insurance - regardless of whether their property is identified as vulnerable on federal flood maps.

Mrs. Tucker said 30 percent of flood-related insurance claims involve property that does not appear in FEMA flood maps.

"The lesson is, given enough rainfall, anywhere can flood," she said.

"If you're considering buying a property, try to go to that location during a downpour," Mrs. Tucker said. "You need to know where the water goes."

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or


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Photos: Flood of 1990
Click on images for more photos