Elba’s complicated history with river floods

Local News

ELBA, Ala. (WDHN) — With several major rivers running through the wiregrass, high water levels have been an issue for dozens of communities like Geneva, Newton, and Columbia.

However, the worst floods have been recorded in the seat of Coffee County, the city of Elba.

In the Elba Christmas flood of 2015, the water crested on the Pea River just under the record high of 43.5 feet.

The 20-year-old levee kept the high water out of downtown, but it did find its way to numerous low-lying neighborhoods. It closed numerous streets and entire subdivisions in the Coffee County town of 4,000 people.

“We look at it as a real positive thing for our town because not many towns have a river flowing through it, but we like for it to stay in its banks obviously,” Mayor Tom Maddox said.

The Christmas flood is just the latest in the town’s water-soaked history.

In the 1990s, three separate floods led to evacuations and millions of dollars in damage. The 1998 flood even claimed lives when the old earthen downtown levee broke, leading to water submerging vehicles.

“With the storm season coming up and the spring season coming up, we encourage people to keep listening to what we’re saying,” said James Brown, director of the Coffee County Emergency Management Agency. “Watch for those storms. Be storm aware because we know what could happen.”

With eco-tourism expected to triple over the next decade, Elba Church of Christ Pastor Philip box has started a business in regard to the Pea River.

“The river brings people to our community, Pea River Outdoors, and other things on the river we’re excited about, and then when the floods come, it certainly changes things drastically,” Box said. “And all of a sudden we’re battling that same river and in a lot of ways we love and that’s why we live where we do.”

Maddox said heavy periods of sustained rains often lead to a nervous vigil for residents in low-lying neighborhoods that worry about the possibility of having to flee to shelter.

He said since the Christmas flood of 2015, FEMA has helped mitigate many of the chronic flood areas in the city.

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