- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

RICHMOND — Rescue workers yesterday discovered the bodies of two more flood victims around Richmond, bringing to seven the death toll from Tropical Storm Gaston, which caused millions of dollars in damage.

Richmond police continue to search for victims of the storm, which stalled over the area Monday night, dumping as much as 14 inches of rain and spawning 10 tornadoes.

About 20,000 homes in the area remained without power yesterday.

Richmond Mayor Rudolph C. McCollum Jr. estimated that the flash flood had caused at least $15 million in damage and millions more in lost economic activity, especially in the city’s hard-hit Shockoe Bottom historic district.

Mr. McCollum said many property owners in the district did not have flood insurance because of a flood wall built in the 1990s to protect the area from any overflow of the James River. But he urged property owners affected by the flooding not to “pick up and run” but to “come back and rebuild.”

“This city will not let a storm define its character [or] define its heart,” Mr. McCollum said. “This community … is not a community that is looking to give up. We are a community that is resilient.”

The two flood victims discovered yesterday were not identified.

One of the victims, a 59-year-old woman, was found in a wooded area east of the city in Henrico County after she was swept away in her Dodge Caravan, according to Robert A. Spieldenner, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Authorities using cadaver dogs found her body at 9:40 a.m. yesterday.

The second victim, a 24-year-old male, was stranded at an intersection in Dinwiddie County when he was swept away, Mr. Spieldenner said.

In both cases, rescue workers were attempting to reach the victims when they were overcome by flood waters. City officials yesterday described the water surge from floods as akin to “class 6 rapids.”

Gov. Mark Warner yesterday requested that the federal government issue a major-disaster declaration for the cities of Richmond, Hopewell, Colonial Heights and Petersburg and the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Hanover, Henrico, and Prince George that experienced severe storm damage.

Richmond city officials closed off 20 blocks of the popular Shockoe Bottom district, as crews yesterday towed wrecked cars, filled sinkholes, hosed mud from sidewalks and bulldozed debris from streets.

As of yesterday afternoon, crews had inspected more than 230 buildings and condemned 19. Nine others were temporarily condemned until crews could bolster building foundations. About 80 vehicles had been towed.

But evidence of the devastation still abounds.

The farmer’s market in the center of the district yesterday was still strewn with the wreckage of broken vendor stalls and wooden crates, as well as three wrecked automobiles that had been carried into the market by surging water.

“We’re working hard to turn this around,” said Richmond City Manager Calvin D. Jamison. “This is a temporary setback, but not one that we cannot overcome.”

The effects of the storm are still being felt. Another major sinkhole developed in the city Tuesday night, 24 hours after the storm ended.

Authorities yesterday were escorting residents and business owners into the area to survey damage, but the district remained closed to prevent looting.

Police Chief Andre Parker said there had been no reports of looting or crime of any sort and praised residents for their assistance during the crisis.

The flood damage closed an old tobacco warehouse that had been refurbished into offices, including the law office of Brown Greer PLC.

Stefanie Dean, 24, a legal secretary at the firm, said she did not think she would be going back to work until at least tomorrow. She said the flood had rocked the business community.

“They are worried people are not going to rebuild,” said Miss Dean, whose 2002 Honda Accord was destroyed by the flooding.

Even businesses not directly affected by the storm were suffering in its aftermath.

Karen Empey, a general manager of Rivah Bistro, said the restaurant had been closed since Tuesday morning and would remain closed until at least tomorrow because of ongoing power outages.

Rivah Bistro, about a block outside of the major flood-damaged area, stood to lose some $30,000 in business and $10,000 in food that spoiled because of the outage, Miss Empey said.

“We’ve lost a tremendous amount of business,” she said. “We have no food, I can’t get any food.” She said the owners continued to pay workers who showed up today to clean up.

Mr. McCollum said he already had indications that property owners were anxious to return, clean up and get back to business.

He said after a devastating four-alarm fire that ripped through downtown and damaged or destroyed scores of buildings and vehicles in March, and Hurricane Isabel, which left hundreds of thousands without power in September 2003, he was not overly concerned that businesses would abandon the city.

“It has already been demonstrated from a market perspective that this is a great place to do business,” he said. “I don’t think that would change.”

Mr. Jamison, who boasted $3 billion worth of business investment in the past five years, described the damage from the floods as a “blip” from an economic development perspective.

In the 19th century, the Shockoe Bottom district was a thriving industrial center of tobacco warehouses and factories, most of which was reduced to ruins after the city fell to Union troops in 1865. President Lincoln surveyed the damage on April 4, 1865, about 1 weeks before he was assassinated.

The area was quickly rebuilt but fell into disrepair after World War II. More recently, it has become a place of trendy shops and restaurants.

“This is definitely an area well worth saving,” Mr. McCollum said. “It has been saved before.”

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