ALBANY, Ga. — Its nickname is “The Good Life City,” built on the pecan groves and cotton fields that gave rise to the Deep South’s trade. It is far inland — more than 150 miles from Mexico Beach, Fla. — and not exactly the archetype of a place that would face repeated natural disasters.
Yet in the past two years, Albany has thrice been hit with devastation: First, a tornado ripped through here in January 2017 while on a 70-mile path that left parts of the city smashed and five people dead. Then, eight months later, Hurricane Irma scarred the region’s crops after it meandered up Florida’s Gulf Coast. And last week, Hurricane Michael shocked this community with terrifying power, downing live oaks and pines and damaging hundreds of homes; glass from the downtown convention center was blown into the streets; and again the pecans and cotton fields were left bleeding. More than half the city doesn’t have electrical power.
“Albany has become the Hard Luck City. Misery abounds,” said Matthew Eisley, 50, a communication consultant in Raleigh, N.C., who grew up in this city of about 75,000. “Her proud people just keep coming back — and they will again. But right now they need help, and lots of it.”
Like numerous inland towns along Florida’s Panhandle, this part of southwest Georgia took a beating after Michael obliterated Mexico Beach and caused massive destruction at Tyndall Air Force Base and in Panama City at the coast. The storm’s powerful eyewall swept north-northeast — still as a Category 3 storm, with winds up to 115 mph — delivering another dose of hardship to one of the poorest swaths of Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
Each storm has tested Albany’s nickname, adding enormous stress to a city struggling with pockets of poverty and crime — about 30 percent of residents here live in poverty, according to census data.
“We didn’t have time to recover from the last storm,” said Yolander Shazer, 40. A tree that fell during the 2017 tornado still lies in her backyard.
The farms in and around Albany took a severe beating. They produce a good share of the country’s supply of sweet pecans and of the state’s cotton. Georgia is the second largest cotton producer in the nation after Texas, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
The damage is so widespread that the Georgia Agriculture Department estimates a $2 billion hit to the state’s economy. To recover, state officials and farmers said federal assistance will be necessary.
“This was going to probably go down as one of the greatest crops ever,” said Justin Jones, who farms 2,600 acres of cotton and 500 acres of pecans in the Albany region. Good weather this summer, with the perfect amount of rain, had made for an outstanding growing season, he said. Hurricane Michael rendered much of Jones’s crops unusable, with cotton that won’t be worth picking.
Many of the processing plants and buying points for peanuts and pecans were significantly damaged, state agriculture officials said. And farmers estimate about 80 percent of irrigation pivots in farms south of Albany were flipped over.
“You can’t get harder hit than this. There’s nothing to sell to get our income back. It’s all gone,” Jones said. “I have been a farmer for 15 years on my own, and I may have just lost everything I got in a matter of six hours. . . . We are going to need some type of assistance or guidance.”
City officials fear the storm will stall progress made in recent years to revitalize Albany’s downtown and the city’s waterfront, an effort to lure in new businesses and more jobs. The city’s plan for a trail system to connect to downtown — often a sign of progress in cities under distress — could once again be delayed.
“We have been beat up again and again,” said Dorothy Hubbard, a two-term mayor and the city’s first African American woman to hold the job. “It feels like we are always in recovery mode.”
But the city has also shown resilience, residents and public officials say. If anything, it has gotten better at cleanup efforts. In the past two years, residents have organized “chain-saw crews” that are ready to respond after a storm to help remove fallen trees. Local restaurants prepare food for line crews and other recovery workers. And the city’s huge civic center opens its doors to distribute food and water.
“The one good thing about a southern town like Albany, everybody comes together to help each other,” said Bo Henry, a local businessman.
Tucked in Georgia’s southwest agricultural farmland, the city has developed a diversified industrial economy, with the presence of major companies such as Proctor & Gamble, MillerCoors and Mars Chocolate North America, the makers of M&Ms and Snickers. In recent years, it has worked to redevelop blighted buildings downtown, making a more appealing waterfront around the Flint RiverQuarium.
Herb Benford, 70, a Vietnam veteran has had his share of weather-related home crises in the 40 years since he settled back in Albany.
Michael’s powerful winds knocked down a 130-foot-tall pine tree in Benford’s yard, splitting his home in half and leaving him and his wife homeless, again. The same house on four acres of land by the Muckalee Creek saw six feet of water during the flooding of 1994 that followed Tropical Storm Alberto. It flooded again four years later during another historic deluge.
“I’ve gotten a nickname recently — they call me Split-House Herb,” he said, maintaining a sense of humor while working outside his home Saturday. “I can’t control it. I am going to rebuild. I am going to stay here.”
“Others not that far from me got devastated,” Benford said. “People have it much worse than I do. . . . So how can I complain?”