By Maj. William Carraway, Historian, Georgia Army National Guard
Twenty-five years ago, this month, the Georgia National Guard conducted its largest natural disaster response prior to Hurricane Katrina.
On July 3, 1994, Tropical Storm Alberto began tracking north across Georgia inundating the state with unprecedented rainfall. Twenty-one inches of precipitation was recorded in 24 hours in Americus, Georgia. With the ground already saturated from previous rains, Alberto swiftly overloaded streams and rivers with surface runoff. Flooding was widespread from the southwest Georgia counties to Atlanta. By July 6, the rain had washed out roads and dams, and the Georgia National Guard had opened six armories as shelters for people displaced by floodwaters. The next day, the units of the Macon-based 48th Infantry Brigade under the command of Col. William Thielemann began to mobilize.
By the end of the July, more than 3,600 Guardsmen had been called to active duty. They came from units ranging from Toccoa to Valdosta and from Savannah to Columbus. They came together with one mission — to help Georgians in need. The response became known as Operation Crested River.
The Infantry Company Executive Officer
Major General Thomas Carden, Adjutant General of the Georgia Department of Defense was a first lieutenant when Alberto struck in 1994. As the executive officer for Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 121st Infantry, Carden was responsible for a detachment of soldiers at the Georgia Guard armory in Tifton. Upon the declaration of a state of emergency by Governor Zell Miller, Carden and his detachment reported for duty.
“We rallied at Cordele and were sent to Albany,” said Carden.
Upon reaching Albany, the 2-121 soldiers were tasked with building a sandbag dam for a local hospital.
“Some of the patients were too weak to evacuate,” recalled Carden. “The power was out and the critical patients at the hospital relied on a generator to supply power to ventilators and life support. “If that generator went out those people would not have survived.”
Thanks to a backbreaking effort, the dam constructed by the soldiers of 2nd Battalion held, and the patients were saved.
The Army Veteran on His First Guard Response Mission
Retired State Command Sergeant Major Phillip Stringfield was also assigned to 2-121 during Crested River. Having recently transferred into the Georgia Army National Guard from the 82nd Airborne Division, Stringfield, was on his first disaster response mission.
“It was my first call out as a Guardsman for state activation,” said Stringfield “It was a unique experience because I will always remember how the service members, whose homes were destroyed, reported for duty. That was so amazing to me, and that will always remain in my mind as an example of the true character of our service members and what we do in this organization.”
Despite the passing of time, Stringfield still vividly recalls details of the flood response.
“I remember driving through Albany and feeling amazed at the destruction of all those buildings,” said Stringfield. “The cries for help from the people in the area were devastating.”
Stringfield was among the first Guardsmen to reach Albany. With 24,000 evacuees in the area, large public facilities were converted into temporary living quarters for displaced families.
“I was assigned to a shelter that I worked at during the day,” Stringfield said. “We provided security and brought hot meals for citizens who had been displaced. Once the permanent housing became available, we transported them there.”
With trucks and tactical vehicles capable of negotiating damaged and debris-strewn roads, transportation became a key component of the Georgia National Guard response. In areas such as Leesburg, that were completely cut off by flood waters, Georgia Guard helicopters delivered relief supplies and transported residents and medical personnel.
“We also transported doctors and first responders who couldn’t get to their jobs because of the flood,” noted Stringfield of operations in Dougherty County.
Retired Lt. Col. Matthew Shannon was a captain with the Statesboro-based 648th Engineer Battalion (now the 177th Brigade Engineer Battalion of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team). Working as the assistant operations officer of the battalion, Shannon relayed assignments to units within the battalion after they came down from the 48th Infantry Brigade.
“(The operations center was) located on a college campus and we were tasked to assist local police,” Shannon said. “Part of the mission was recovering bodies that had come up through the graves because of the flood.”
Shannon described how the soldiers of his unit not only recovered bodies dating back to the Civil War, but also ensured artifacts were recovered.
“I remember them saying they recovered a lot of sabers, other weapons and artifacts from the Civil War,” he said. “They would then take everything to a central location for graves registration. Their goal was to try to put as much back together for re-burial.”
Shannon recalled how strange it was to have so much flooding in the south when much of the rain had fallen in the north of the state.
“It was such an oddity because there was a lot of sun and a lot of water,” he said. “It’s not something you would have expected to see.”
Engineer units of the Georgia National Guard were pressed into service surveying damage and repairing roads. Soldiers of the Columbus-based 560th Engineer Battalion worked around the clock to construct a berm around an ammonia tank in Bainbridge. Had flood water breached the berm the entire town would have had to evacuate.
By July 18, command and control of response operations shifted from the 48th Infantry Brigade to the 265th Engineer Group. Throughout their portion of the response, the soldiers of the 48th Brigade operated more than 500 vehicles filled nearly 55,000 sandbags and transported more than 400,000 of drinking water.
The Operations Sergeant Major
The Georgia Guard coordinated the statewide response from the tactical operation center in Atlanta. Retired Sgt. Major Jacqueline McKennie was assigned to the TOC Emergency Operations Center during the flood relief.
“The EOC was the central command and control facility over all of the National Guard units—both Air Guard and Army Guard—throughout the state of Georgia,” said McKennie.
McKennie was responsible for personnel control. She assisted with the mobilization of units and made sure the units knew where they were supposed to go while maintaining accountability for personnel. Once the units were dispatched, the EOC handled the command and control for each of them.
From July 6 to August 5, a myriad of units with specialized equipment and capabilities were dispatched across the state. The Decatur-based 170th Military Police Battalion augmented law enforcement in impacted areas. The Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Civil Engineer Squadron were dispatched to Macon after the city’s drinking water source was overwhelmed the city’s water treatment plant. The 116th conducted water purification operations with the assistance of 20 Alabama National Guard soldiers of the 1200th Quartermaster Company as well as the Fort Stewart-based 559th Quartermaster Battalion. The massive purification and distribution mission resulted in the production of nearly five million gallons of drinking water for Bibb County residents.
“It was kind of hectic at first, because the flood hit so hard and so fast that it caused so much death and destruction,” said McKennie. “But things eventually returned to normal once we got people into place where help was needed.”
Tropical Storm Alberto claimed 30 lives in Georgia. The ages of the victims ranged from 2 to 84 years old. The storm forced more than 35,000 citizens from their homes and caused more than $203 million in infrastructure damage. The Georgia Guard responded by mobilizing, 3,683 Guardsmen -- nearly one third of the state’s force. In the weeks that followed, These Guardsmen, in partnership with first responders and civil authorities from impacted counties distributed more than 10.2 million gallons of water, served 154,000 meals and repaired hundreds of miles of damaged road. For those who served, the memory of the response remains, and the lessons learned have been applied to ensure that the Guard remains ready to respond.
In the 25 years following the flood of 1994, the Georgia National Guard has honed its ability to respond to natural disasters. From Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to Hurricanes Matthew, Irma and Michael of recent memory, the Georgia Guard has responded and partnered with state and local agencies to assist Georgia’s citizens in times of emergencies and to minimize the impacts of natural disasters. For those who participated in the response in 1994, the memory of Operation Crested River remains fresh.
“It does not seem like it was so long ago,” said Carden. “Helping our fellow citizens is one of the most rewarding things we do in the National Guard.”
WATCH VIDEO of the Guard's role in the Flood of 1994.