Elba is the county seat of Coffee County, in South Alabama. It started out as a ferry on the Pea River, at the confluence with Whitewater Creek in the 1830s. Its first name was Bridgeville. The name was changed to Elba in 1851. The winning name was chosen in a contest. The winning entry was submitted by a man who had just read a biography of Napoleon.
The Pea River has always been an important part of life in Elba. Originally named Talakatchee River by the Creeks, settlers renamed it the Pea. Floods have also been an integral part of the river’s role on history. The town was destroyed in 1865 by a major flood.
Another flood threatened to destroy the town in 1929. On Thursday morning, March 14, 1929, townspeople were warned to evacuate as the river started to rise. The downtown was flooded by lunchtime. The flood of Elba was the worst in the history of Alabama until that time. After that, levees were built around the town. More floods followed, one about every twenty years.
But the worst cane in 1990 when a week of heavy rains and flooding swamped parts of South Alabama. The Pea River crested at nearly 48 feet during the event on March 17th. But it was Whitewater Creek that breached the levees in the 1990 flood. About 7 a.m. on the 17th, the levee failed and water rushed into the town. It would flood the entire town, nearly destroying it completely. Damage across South Alabama totaled $100 million.
In 1994, Tropical Storm Alberto brought extremely heavy rains to South Alabama. This time, the river didn’t flood the town, it was heavy rainfall that could not drain properly from inside the town’s ring levees. After that event, town officials asked for help. A stormwater drainage system was designed and built in 1997 using FEMA money.
In addition, a program was implemented to convince homeowners to give up their homes in the floodplain. Fifty four homes were sold to FEMA in a successful mitigation project.
The river would rise again in 1998 when as much as twelve inches of rain fell across the area from overnight storms on March 8th. A levee on the Pea failed as the River crested at nine feet above flood stage. The entire downtown was inundated again. Two people died, and 2,000 people had to be evacuated because of the floodwaters.
– Bill Murray
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