- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

RICHMOND — The federal government wants to know more about drainage in Shockoe Bottom, a thriving Richmond retail, office, restaurant, entertainment and residential district before a flood devastated it a week ago, Sen. George Allen said yesterday.

With federal disaster-relief officials in tow, Mr. Allen, Virginia Republican, waded through the mud-covered floors of ruined businesses and urged their proprietors to take advantage of low-interest government-backed loans to reopen.

“Folks down here are tougher than a pine knot, and they are going to come back better than ever,” Mr. Allen said over the din of heavy equipment removing the rubble of a nearby building demolished in the flood.

For entrepreneurs, many of whom had staked personal savings on business ventures lost in the flood and most of whom had no flood insurance, federal aid is vital to their ability to reopen.

“In the Bottom, we’re very much at the mercy of the federal government,” said John Woodward, the city’s director of economic development.

Some business owners and residents, however, were wary of trying again, fearing that the next freak rainstorm could bring more of the same misery.

Tropical Storm Gaston dumped more than a foot of rain on downtown Richmond in only a few hours on the evening of Aug. 30, overloading the Shockoe Valley watershed and leaving 20 blocks of the low-lying Bottom swamped in up to 10 feet of muddy runoff.

Eight persons were killed and more than 350 homes were destroyed or damaged across central Virginia by currents powerful enough to whisk away delivery vans and strip huge slabs of blacktop from city streets and deposit them dozens of feet away.

No one died in Shockoe Bottom, but 35 businesses, 25 restaurants and 150 residences were rendered at least temporarily uninhabitable by the flooding, said Erika Gay, executive director of the River District Alliance.

Damage estimates, still far from complete, already total about $60 million, Miss Gay said. Only one business had flood insurance.

Shockoe Bottom is a natural basin with prominent hills to its east and west. Shockoe Creek flowed openly through it until the 1920s, when it was channeled into a 27-foot culvert that conducts it into the James River a few hundred yards to the south.

The tunnel runs beneath Shockoe Bottom and serves as a storm sewer to drain rainfall from the area, said Diane Linderman, the city’s public works director.

Mr. Allen said federal officials will investigate the drainage system as part of their relief effort.

“Any time there are floods, whether in Buena Vista, whether in Richmond or anywhere else, those sorts of mitigation issues always come up,” Mr. Allen said.

Particular attention should be put on the Shockoe Creek culvert, he said.

“Clearly, that needs to be cleaned out if there’s any debris in it. Obviously, all of that — rocks, stumps, bricks, whatever is in it — needs to be cleaned out, and that assessment needs to be done,” Mr. Allen said.

Mayor Rudy McCollum said the culvert was to have been inspected before the remnants of Hurricane Charley passed over Virginia in mid-August, but he did not know what the inspection found.

City public works and public utilities officials were unable yesterday to say whether there is a schedule for periodic checks of the tunnel or what the findings of the most recent inspections showed.

Since 1990, Shockoe Bottom has been shielded from James River flooding by a massive concrete wall 21 feet high.

City Building Commissioner Claude G. Cooper rejected suggestions by some business owners that the wall slowed the water from draining back into the James and may have aggravated the flooding.

“It was coming in so fast that it just overwhelmed everything. It was coming in from everywhere and coming in very fast and coming in from a large watershed,” Mr. Cooper said.

Most residents would be able to return to their homes tomorrow, said Eric Anderson, president of the Shockoe Neighborhood Committee.

Landlords have work to do on the bottom floors first and need to make sure the rest of their buildings are safe, Mr. Anderson said.

Kevin Custer, 31, who lives in a third-floor apartment, said he moved back in Sunday and has had his electricity, water and even cable service restored.

Even so, he said: “I’m reluctant to stay. I love this area, but it depends on our feeling of safety.”


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