Ask McGehee

In September 1979, Mobile was hit with Hurricane Frederic, its costliest storm to date. Thousands of trees fell, knocking down power lines. As temperatures climbed, much of Spring Hill found itself without water.

No electricity meant no gasoline, and National Guard troops patrolled parking lots where lines of Mobilians waited to buy bags of ice. For those who suffered through those stifling September days, the sound of a chainsaw still brings back memories.

Things gradually returned to normal in Mobile. Cooler temperatures arrived along with restored utilities. One by one, streets and neighborhoods were cleared of debris, and by the new year, it looked like the city could focus on the future and happily put the catastrophe behind them.

Nature had other ideas. In April of 1980, the city experienced two days of heavy rains – nothing unusual for Mobile. The third day of rain caused the problem. More than three inches fell in a single hour that Sunday morning, and the ground was so thoroughly saturated that the water had nowhere to go. 

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The situation quickly escalated. As rains pelted Mobile, the lakes at Langan Park began to overflow. The lower lake’s dam quickly eroded, and as its contents rushed out, a major water main beneath the lake burst. A torrent rushed across Zeigler Boulevard, rendering the thoroughfare impassable. 

Flash Flood

Three Mile Creek, or what the French once called Chateauguay Bayou, meanders from the University of South Alabama campus through Langan Park before taking an eastward route just north of Spring Hill Avenue. As it proceeds, countless storm drains contribute to its flow.

Its waters pass beneath both U.S. Highway 98 and Interstate 65 before flowing north past both University of South Alabama Medical Center and the Mobile Infirmary. That water ultimately runs beneath Telegraph Road and empties into the Mobile River.

Those living near the creek’s banks were used to occasional flooding, but no one could have foreseen the turn of events during that spring deluge. Employees at USA Medical Center watched as the parking lot rapidly flooded. The lucky ones moved quickly and got their cars to higher ground. Their unfortunate coworkers found their vehicles submerged.

Residents accustomed to the creek overflowing into their yards suddenly found water spurting through the floorboards of their homes. One resident recalled it as being ankle deep one second and waist deep the next. Finding their cars suddenly flooded, many residents made a hasty escape on foot, wading through the rushing waters.

Two Killed

Rising water swept a couple on a motorcycle off the Stone Street Bridge where they drowned as an estimated 3.95 million gallons of angry, muddy water rushed toward the Mobile River. Manhole covers popped free as the contents of overwhelmed storm drains burst forth.

The rain eventually slowed to a drizzle and then stopped. The raging waters made their way east and within hours the flood had receded. Residents returned to find their cars and homes filled with mud and sand. More than 600 homes had been damaged.

Lawsuits erupted against the city as critics blamed previous drainage “improvements, ” which had turned portions of natural wetlands into concrete ditches that just moved the water even faster. An environmental scientist declared that the former bayou had become “an urban drainage conduit.”

Ultimately, dozens of flood-prone homes were purchased and demolished. A $29.6 million project widened the creek and replaced three bridges.

The Future

The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program is now focusing on Three Mile Creek with the intention of cleaning it up and creating a linear park along its banks. Its enthusiastic members envision bike paths and a waterway for canoes, which would connect the University of South Alabama campus with Downtown. When their ambitious plan is complete, there will be little to remind residents of that rainy weekend in April of 1980. 

Text by Tom McGehee

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