- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

RICHMOND — It was supposed to be nothing more than a quick-moving thunderstorm.

Instead, what was left of Tropical Storm Gaston settled in over central Virginia for hours on Monday, dumping up to 14 inches of rain, sending floodwaters churning through city streets and over country roads, claiming five lives, destroying blocks of buildings in one Richmond neighborhood and leaving devastation that Gov. Mark Warner called “overwhelming.”

The governor and other state and local officials toured the hard-hit Shockoe Bottom neighborhood in Richmond yesterday, taking stock of the dozens of buckled, mud-covered streets, overturned, waterlogged cars and destroyed restaurants, offices and homes.

“We knew the storm was coming this way,” said Detective Ronald Brown, spokesman for the Richmond Police Department. “We just had no idea that we would get as much rain as we did.”

Five persons were killed, and three are missing across the state.

Two died in separate incidents in Richmond, trying to save others by forming human chains to reach those trapped in cars. Each of the would-be rescuers, who have not been identified, lost contact with the chain and were swept away by the current, said Robert A. Stieldenner of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

The storm surprised meteorologists, who had forecast no more than 4 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.

Residents and city officials described a scene of terror as water quickly swept through the low-lying area on Monday, 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.

Eric Franklin, a 26-year-old Richmond computer technician, was in his second-floor apartment when the flood started at about 5:30 p.m. Monday.

“The current of the water moving down the street was really strong. By that time, it was really flowing. It was over my head, and I am 6 foot, 5 inches.”

His girlfriend, Stephanie Brown, 23, was on her way home from her clerical job about eight blocks away when she came upon the rushing waters.

“I was like, ‘This isn’t so bad. Then I got to [15th Street], and it was like a raging river,” Miss Brown said.

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

Andrea Hughes, who lives in a Shockoe Bottom district 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 a collapsed building.

“We’re now jobless, carless and possibly homeless,” she said.

Residents returning to the area late yesterday stood outside a cordoned-off, 25-block area, frustrated that they were prevented from retrieving belongings and pets.

Colleen Androvich, 29, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate student, was trying to return to her apartment to get her cats. She said her apartment building had been condemned yesterday morning.

“Our apartment was fine, but the downstairs was demolished.” Miss Androvich said.

She stayed in her apartment throughout the night, watching from her window as the waters rose.

“It was really scary,” she said. “In my doorway, there was a foot of mud” left by the receding waters.

Mr. Warner declared a state of emergency on 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. Mr. Warner and city officials said it was too early to provide a damage estimate.

“It is a remarkable blessing that more people were not hurt,” said Mr. Warner as he surveyed the damage.

At the height of the storm, 130,000 Virginia residents were without power, according to Dominion Virginia. By 4:30 p.m. yesterday, 50,000 customers were still without power. Dominion Power spokesman David B. Bodkins said he expected that everyone would have their lights back on by today.

In Chesterfield County, rescuers pulled a woman’s body from a submerged car early Tuesday, county public affairs officer Dave Good said. Two other persons died in Hanover County. In both cases, officials said the victim got out of the car and was carried off by the rushing water.

At the bottom of a valley, the Shockoe Bottom area is prone to flooding. A flood wall built in the 1990s 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.

In the 19th century, the Shockoe Bottom district was a thriving industrial center dotted with tobacco warehouses and factories, although 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, the tobacco warehouses have been turned into loft apartments, and popular nightclubs and restaurants line the streets.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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