Home News ‘It’s bigger than man:’ Looking back at Mobile’s flood of 1981

‘It’s bigger than man:’ Looking back at Mobile’s flood of 1981

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Mobilians going about their business on May 5, 1981, were no strangers to heavy rains. But they had little idea what was coming.

Hurricane Frederic, in September 1979, had resulted in a federal disaster declaration. Another had come in spring 1980, which saw two rounds of flooding. During one of those, in April, a dam failed at Municipal Park “emptying the lake into Three Mile Creek and ultimately into the homes of Mobile residents below,” according to a Mobile Register report.

Three Mile Creek experienced massive flooding again in April 1981, with hundreds of homes in the watershed taking damage. And yet, incredibly, the worst was still to come.

Many didn’t realize until their phones began to ring in the night. The May 8 Register described one such account:

“This is the third time this has happened, said Dorothy Mooney who resides at 558 Velma Street. ‘My mother called me around 1 a.m. and told me to get the children and get out, because water had started to rise all around the house.’”

“Tales of close encounters with disaster abounded,” said the same article. “Water marks on some houses along Three Mile Creek, which became a raging torrent, revealed floodwaters had reached the roof eaves of nearby houses … In Tonlours and other low-lying subdivisions in the Three Mile Creek flood plain, ‘the water came up so fast the people couldn’t get out and we couldn’t get in to get them,’ City Commissioner Gary Greenough said.”

No fatalities or serious injuries were reported despite serious disruption: Four hospitals along the creek were affected, partly or entirely cut off from land access and forced to run on generator power. And the damage was hardly limited to one creek. The intersection of University Boulevard and Old Shell Road was drowned in a surge of mud flowing off recently deforested land on the University of South Alabama campus, a police sergeant scrambling to safety as his patrol car was swept away. I-65 had to be closed between U.S. 90 and Moffett Road. “On Airport Boulevard near I-65, in the parking lot of Mobile Infirmary and in other locations, waters swept over the tops of parked cars,” wrote Register reporters. A surge of water poured through Springdale Mall causing extensive damage, including the loss of a reported $3 million in inventory at Montgomery Ward.

“I just don’t know how to cope with things like this,” said Public Works Commissioner Lambert Mims, who had spent the night directing municipal crews. “It’s bigger than man. The drainage systems were clear. It was just an abundance of water that couldn’t be handled.”

He was right about the abundance of water. According to a U.S. Geological Survey summary of the incident, “More than 12 inches of rain fell between 6 p.m. May 5, and 3 a.m. May 6.” City officials said most official rain gauges showed 12 inches, but that may be misleading: They were semi-automated gauges that could only handle 12 inches before needing a reset. One water company gauge that had been reset reported a total of 14.5 inches. At the peak of the storm, several inches were falling every hour.

The aftermath was proportional. “Nearly 3,000 area homes damaged” was the headline striped across the front page of The Mobile Register on Thursday, May 7. That number was later revised downward, but hundreds of people had been displaced from their homes and numerous bridges and roads were damaged throughout Mobile County.

Within a few days the damage tallies were adding up: $15 million in damage to private property, with 1,300 homes flooded. $12.7 million in damage to private businesses and another $4.6 million to city property. About a week later, President Ronald Reagan approved a disaster declaration and FEMA was set to begin disbursing aid.

Fingers were pointed. The May 21 Register carried a report of an angry public meeting, where some speakers apparently suggested the city had failed Black neighborhoods. “Commissioners said little during the meeting. They appeared visibly upet by racial overtones in two speakers’ comments and instructed a contingent of police guard to be ready to escort them from the meeting if necessary. No one was removed, however,” said the paper.

Mobile was growing. While the rains clearly had been extreme, some theorized that urban sprawl into west Mobile had resulted in increased runoff.

In the following months, the May 5-6 flood proved to be a turning point for Mobile. In November 1982 the Register reported that millions of dollars had been committed to flood relief programs. The city and FEMA were buying up properties in the Three Mile Creek flood plain, though there still was some resistance in neighborhoods such as Dubroca Street. The Langan Park Dam that failed in 1980 had been replaced and the expectation was that the park’s lake would be full again by year’s end.

Changes came to the creek itself, its natural flow constrained by dikes and weirs. The only time in recent memory that it experienced serious flooding was during Hurricane Katrina, and that was driven more by storm surge than by rainfall.

The city is working to build a greenway that follows its course through the city, providing a corridor for cyclists and pedestrians. It’s only taken 40 years for the waterway to be widely seen as an asset to be developed, rather than a threat to be managed.