“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
That quote from Edmund Burke has been on my mind a lot over the last decade or so. Because, after 45 years of chronicling the happenings in Jeff Davis County, I see the mistakes of history repeated over and over.
The latest repeat is the recent flooding in downtown Hazlehurst, something those of us older folks have seen many, many times in the past.
Let’s go a bit further in the past. A lot further in the past.
During the winter of 1918-1919, even relatively small storms in Hazlehurst turned the downtown area and its unpaved streets into a muddy quagmire. The city had been experiencing growth in population and businesses and after rains there was standing water everywhere. Malaria was a very real problem in the world then and malaria cases were not uncommon in Hazlehurst. The standing water led to the breeding of millions of malaria carrying mosquitoes.
Among the duties of the city’s Chief of Police in those days was to see to it that the roadside ditches were kept free of trash and weeds so as not to inhibit the flow of water. Even Latimer Street in the heart of Hazlehurst was ditched on both sides at that time.
But, since south Georgia is such a flat land, the water had nowhere to flow and it took time for standing water to leach into the earth.
In March, 1919, an article appeared in the Hazlehurst News explaining that the City was planning to cut a big canal through the town and drain the water from the streets. That canal was to extend “from the pond beyond Harrison’s cotton gin to the Miller Branch.”
From the casual research I did, the canal appears to have begun somewhere in the downtown area, probably around Latimer Street, and roughly follow Williams Street, going under Coffee Street at its intersection with Tallahassee Street, and extend to an area behind Buddy Spann park. That area is the lowest area in the City of Hazlehurst. From there, the water would wind its way to the river.
Later, in the early 1930s, a large pipe was placed in the canal and the canal was filled in and the city continued to develop over the pipe.
Three of four years ago, that pipe developed a leak under Williams Street at its intersection with West First Avenue. When city workers dug down to the pipe, they located it some 15 feet deep. So that ditch, built in 1919 was, indeed, a deep one.
Roadside ditches along the downtown streets emptied into that ditch. When the big pipe was installed, the roadside ditches were eventually piped and covered over.
That system served the city well for decades. But in the 1960s, downtown Hazlehurst began to develop with larger chain store operations opening here. With those stores came large parking lots and, quickly, the amount of open lands into which rainfall could seep was reduced sharply.
In 60s, the Piggly Wiggly store was constructed along with its large parking lot.
Early in the 1970s, a McConnell’s store was built at the present location of Farmers Furniture on Weatherly Blvd.
In that era, there were no laws that required the building of retention ponds to handle water runoff. So when rains came, the water ran off into the streets and surrounding properties. Hardest hit was the line of stores which housed Wallace’s Fashion Shop, Evelyn’s Artistry in Hair Fashions, and Gwen’s Fashions on South Williams Street — which flooded again during last Monday’s rain.
During heavy rains, all those businesses flooded. The situation got so bad, each of those businesses kept a supply of sand bags and their owners watched the weather reports closely.
One of the worst incidences happened in 1981 and the business owners aired their complaints to the Hazlehurst City Council. During that storm, ERO Industries a block further south also flooded. In response, the city conducted extensive work to clean out drainage ditches throughout the city and the situation improved.
In the early 1990s, the downtown area continued to develop and the open areas that consumed much of the rainfall shrunk considerably.
ERO Industries and South Georgia Gin constructed large warehouses along Odom Street, a half block from South Williams. By 1994, owners of those two facilities went to a City Council meeting seeking relief from drainage problems that sent water into their businesses. Prior to that meeting, the Council had already asked Hofstadter and Associates engineering firm to look into the problem and the preliminary surveying had already begun.
But it was not an easy fix. And the original price tag was staggering — $2.9 million.
It took two years of planning before the project could get underway. The price tag was pared down to $1.2 million and a $688,800 federal economic development grant covered most of the cost. The city and county pitched in over $100,000 each and other funding was acquired.
The project broke ground in December, 1996.
Once completed, the Williams/Odom street drainage problems disappeared.
But they unexpectedly reappeared in January of this year. And the city went to work and cleaned out an overgrown drainage ditch behind the Williams Street businesses.
Last week’s rain that flooded those Williams Street businesses was not caused by poor drainage. It was caused by an astoundingly heavy downpour that no amount of drainage could have handled.
I take that back. With enough money, it could have been avoided. But that amount of money would be the ruin of the City of Hazlehurst.
I talked with Carl Hofstadter of Hofstadter and Associates last Wednesday and described the situation. He said what most people surely understand. This is south Georgia. It’s flat.
That 1996 drainage project was planned on the engineering industry standard of a 25-year rain. The kind of rain that normally occurs once every 25 years.
“You can’t afford to build a drainage system that will do more,” he said.
In my opinion, there’s really nothing the city can afford to do via drainage improvements.
My advice to the business owners is find you another place to rent. Or, as then-Mayor Buddy Spann suggested in the 1980s, get the building owner to raise the level of the floor, which is now lower than street level.
Or get you a supply of sand bags.