- Associated Press - Friday, December 25, 2015

The torrential rain in southeast Alabama is over.

Now comes a familiar wait, as the tiny town of Elba watches to see how high Pea River and nearby waterways will rise in this region that has flooded so many times before.

As of early Christmas afternoon, the river stood at 39 feet, about nine feet above flood level. It is forecast to reach 43.5 feet sometime around Saturday at noon, eclipsing the crest of the 1929 flood, according to local officials.

The levee that shields part - but not all - of the city, offers protection up to 44 feet, maybe 45 in some spots.

“Now we’re just dealing with runoff,” says Larry Walker, the local emergency management chief. “It all depends on how the water flows.”

He continued, “So far, so good,” before adding the cautionary conclusion: “We think.”

The rising waters in Elba are part of an unusually warm, wet storm system that has spanned much of the southeastern U.S. this week, spawning tornadoes that left at least 14 people and left dozens of families homeless by Christmas Eve.

Flash flooding continued Christmas Day across swaths of Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, with multiple governors in the region, Alabama’s Robert Bentley included, declaring formal states of emergency.

In Elba, Walker began Christmas morning with a meeting of city and county authorities. State emergency management officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers participated, as well.

A shelter opened at Elba Elementary School, part of the standard protocol that makes up the region’s emergency management plan. By mid-afternoon, Walker said about two dozen people had checked in. Altogether, about 30 residences had been evacuated in areas that fall outside the levee’s protection.

By midnight, he added, “it might be double that number” of households.

Two state highways into Elba already were closed, with the river almost reaching the base of the Alabama 87 bridge into town. A third could be closed by tomorrow, Walker said, leaving Elba accessible only from the west.

“We would not be completely encircled or isolated,” he said, “but it would be the long way around.”

The Christmastime storm hasn’t yet brought the kind of devastation seen in the communities wrecked by tornadoes, but in Elba it’s still a powerful reminder of past destruction.

The town was completely flooded in 1865 and again in 1929, the previous record Pea River crest. The 1929 flood led to the levee construction. But major flooding occurred again in 1990, when nearby Whitewater Creek overwhelmed levees, in 1994 and again in 1998, when another levee failed under the pressured from Pea River.

The benefit of that history, Walker agreed, is preparation: “I believe we’ve got all the bases covered.”


Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP .

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