Historic Richmond Hard Hit by Gaston Flooding

September 2, 2004

An unexpectedly heavy downpour from the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston led to widespread flooding in Richmond, Va. that left at least five dead and devastated an historic neighborhood that was the heart of the Confederate capital during the Civil War.

In the hard-hit Shockoe Bottom district, dozens of cars were tossed about in the streets, which were left caked with mud and strewn with bricks and other debris. Numerous businesses and apartments were flooded. An overturned produce truck lay next to a brick building that had collapsed onto several vehicles.

Residents and city officials described a scene of terror as water quickly swept through the low-lying area, reaching depths of up to 10 feet. Rescue crews helped unload passengers through windows of a marooned bus, and panicked motorists raced to escape their cars as they were overtaken by floodwaters.

Luissa Alba, who was rescued from her apartment building by boat, said she saw one person, trying to escape the rising floodwater, clinging from a nearby railroad trestle. A woman, holding a child in each arm, stood atop her car, screaming for help, she said.

Alba, a 28-year-old graduate student, said that for some reason, she couldn’t reach a 911 emergency dispatcher on her cell phone. “It was ridiculous,” she said. “We basically had to call friends who called 911 for us.”

Andrea Hughes, who lives in a Shockoe Bottom apartment, said she watched from the roof of a flooded pizza restaurant where she works as a river of water pushed her car for more than a block. Her roommate, who also works at the restaurant, lost her car underneath the collapsed building.

“We’re now jobless, car-less and possibly homeless,” said Hughes, who was rescued by boat from the restaurant.

The storm surprised meteorologists, who had forecast no more than four inches of rain. But the system parked itself over the Richmond area for several hours, triggering floods that closed Interstate 95 and more than 100 roads in the region.

Downtown Richmond received up to 12 inches of rain. Northeast of the city, rural King William County got 14 inches, the National Weather Service said.

In Richmond’s historic Church Hill district, the massive rains triggered a mudslide that tore off the face of a 30-foot hill, trapping cars in 3 feet of mud and making the road impassable. In another area, an intersection disappeared into a 30-foot sinkhole, with cars, twisted pieces of fencing and part of a front yard lying in the bottom.

“This truly was an act of God,” said Gov. Mark R. Warner, who walked through the muddy Shockoe Bottom streets.

Warner had declared a state of emergency Monday night for the Richmond area. He said he planned to ask the federal government to declare a state of emergency, too, making residents eligible for federal aid.

Warner and city officials said it was too early to provide a damage estimate.

Five people died in the storm. Two of them died in a creek in eastern Richmond, authorities said. And in nearby Chesterfield County, rescuers pulled a woman’s body from a submerged, county public affairs officer Dave Goode said. Two other deaths occurred in Hanover County north of the city.

CSX Corp., based in Jacksonville, Fla., shut down rail passenger and freight traffic traveling through Richmond. Company spokeswoman Misty Skipper said many portions of the track were flooded, and CSX’s Acca Yard in Richmond remained under water.

Skipper said she could not speculate when the tracks would reopen.

At the bottom of a valley, the Shockoe area is prone to flooding. A floodwall built in the ’90s now protects shops, restaurants and homes, but it was designed to impede the James River — not a sudden deluge from the sky. Before the wall was erected, river flooding repeatedly devastated the area.

City officials closed off 20 blocks of the Shockoe Bottom district — or about half of the historic area — near the James River. Bricks and overturned vehicles lay in the streets. The pavement had buckled on the roads. A bright green Honda and other cars had floated into an open-air farmers’ market.

In the 19th century, the Shockoe district was a thriving industrial center dotted with tobacco warehouses and factories, though most of it lay in smoldering ruins after the city fell to Union troops in 1865. Abraham Lincoln walked through the area shortly after the war and surveyed the damage.

Today, tobacco warehouses have been turned into loft apartments and popular nightclubs and restaurants line the streets. Warner described the damage to many businesses as “overwhelming.”

A thin layer of mud covered desks and office equipment at the corporate headquarters of American Health Care, which owns 17 nursing homes in Virginia, and one room was turned into a crater when the floor gave way and furniture and office equipment crashed into the basement.

A water mark was clearly visible 41/2 feet high on the wall.

“I was the last to leave last night at about 6:30, and I looked outside and there was a man in a floating BMW just spinning around right outside the window,” said Bill Anderson, an information technology consultant for the company.

About 51,000 customers of Dominion Virginia Power still had no electricity Tuesday, mostly in the Richmond area. A brick substation that fed the Shockoe area disintegrated, and utility officials did not know when they would be able to return power to the district’s estimated 13,600 homes and businesses.

Many roads remained closed by high water.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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