Virginia Declares State of Emergency After Gaston

September 1, 2004

Residents and officials are assessing damage after the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston battered central Virginia with torrential rain Monday, causing heavy flooding that sent cars floating down streets and trapped people in buildings.

Gov. Mark R. Warner declared a state of emergency Monday night. The declaration made state resources available and put the Virginia National Guard on standby for possible duty. Three fatalities were confirmed, authorities said.

“It’s been a disaster of major proportions,” said Richmond Mayor Rudolph McCollum.

Nearly 66,000 customers of Dominion Virginia Power remained without Power Tuesday, about 63,000 of them in the Richmond area.

Some of the worst flooding was in the city’s popular Shockoe Bottom district, which is known for its bars and restaurants.

“It looks like rapids outside our building,” said Nick Baughan, who was stranded with about 20 other people on the second floor of the Bottoms Up pizza restaurant. “All of our cars have floated away.”

The first floor of the restaurant was under 10 to 12 feet of water, Baughan said.

The storm’s strong punch took weather forecasters and the public by surprise. Meteorologists had predicted no more than four inches of rain, but the system instead dumped 10 to 14 inches in the Richmond area, snarling traffic and stranding evening commuters on Interstate 95 and other major thoroughfares.

Keith Lynch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wakefield, said tropical storms are typically preceded by clouds. But in Gaston’s case, the sun shone until the storm arrived, causing an unusual period of heating that led to more instability and heavy downpours.

State police closed I-95 near downtown Richmond after several feet of water flooded the highway and submerged cars. The interstate had reopened by Tuesday morning, but many other commuter highways and streets remained closed.

Downtown, floating cars rammed into buildings, including Bottoms Up. “We had a side shed attached to the building. It’s not attached anymore,” Baughan said.

Richmond police spokeswoman Cynthia Price confirmed that two people died in storm waters Monday night in Gillie Creek in eastern Richmond, but Price said they don’t know the cause of death and no other details were available.

High waters blocked streets and interstates in the Richmond region during rush hour Monday, snarling commutes.

Two shelters were opened in Richmond and one in both Henrico and Chesterfield counties, where emergency officials ordered an evacuation of neighborhoods downstream from the Falling Creek dam.

“This extraordinary rainfall caught us by surprise, but Virginia’s emergency response is well underway,” Warner said.

The downpour even flooded the state’s antiquated Emergency Operations Center, sending emergency officials scrambling to protect computers and other electronic equipment, said Harry Colestock, chief of operations for the state Department of Emergency Management. About 4.5 inches of water covered the floor, and power was briefly disrupted, he said.

Meteorologist Lynch said he received reports of possible tornadoes touching down in James City and Yorktown. Lynch said officials will visit those sites and others Tuesday to determine whether twisters did touch down.

James City County Deputy Fire Chief Tal Luton said he saw two tornadoes. The first one hit around 1:40 p.m. near Jamestown, and the second came off the James River about an hour later.

Luton described damage as “fairly light.” He said trees were knocked over — a couple onto the roofs of houses — and debris was scattered along the paths of the twisters. A fence around a private tennis court also was flattened.

“If anything surprised me it was that they were small,” Luton said of the tornadoes.

The storm ensured that this would be the wettest summer on record in some localities. Lynch said that as of 5 p.m. Monday, Richmond had received 30.34 inches of rain since June 1, breaking the June-through-August record of 27.57 inches recorded in 1969.

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

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