The Flood We Never Knew!

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The worst flooding in Roanoke’s history happened 33 years ago in November. In 1985 there was an deadly, devastating, and catastrophic flood otherwise known as the Election Day Flood in Virginia but it is know in West Virginia as the Killer Flood of 1985. The event occurred after Hurricane Juan, a tropical cyclone came across the region. Critical floods hit the western parts of Virginia, one of them being Roanoke.

Hurricane Juan was a large and unpredictable tropical cyclone that curved twice near the Louisiana coast, creating extensive flooding. The hurricane expanded over the Gulf of Mexico in the Atlantic then moved to Florida and up the coast from there towards Virginia and Maryland.

High amounts of rain caused many rivers to flood way above their banks across Virginia, becoming amid the top three highest on record along several rivers in the state. The city of Roanoke recorded 6.61 in in a 24‑hour period, the highest 24‑hour total on record for the city since records started  in 1912.  A total, 4.25 in fell in roughly three hours.

In Roanoke, the Roanoke River rose 18.57 ft in ten hours to a peak of 23.35 ft  considered a 1 in 200 year event. In the city, many residents had to be rescued after they were trapped, and three people drowned by driving into flooded waters. This flood was considered the worst flood on record in the city and Roanoke sustained $225 million in damage, with 3,100 damaged homes and businesses. There was also flooding in Richmond after the James River crested at the second-highest level on record. Throughout Virginia, damage was approximately $753 million, making it the state’s costliest flood at the time, and there were devastated with 22 deaths.

Total damages in the Roanoke Valley may have approached $225 million and statewide damages $800 million, numbers that would be far higher today. Over 13,000 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed in the state.

The flood of 1985 is considered to be in the 100 year flood category. A “100” year flood is expected once every 100 years on the average, but there is no guarantee of a 100-year space between the floods. Every year, there is 1% chance of the 100-year flood flood happening.

Every year or two, it is ordinary for a storm to pour rain so fast that it causes small amounts flooding. When 10-12 inches of rain falls in just a few hours, stormwater drifts down into streams faster than the natural channels can transfer that amount of water downstream. The excessive volume of water in the stream lifts above the channel, pouring over the streambanks and flooding the adjacent floodplain.

The floodwaters on the floodplains move steadier than the water in the stream channel. It then slows down as it spreads across the wider area, and may be slowed by plants. Floodplains are usually flat, as a result of silt and rocks being deposited by slow-moving floodwaters that are outside the ordinary fast-moving channels.

In the aftermath of the 1985 floods, President Ronald Reagan declared 121 counties or other areas as disaster areas, including 40 counties and 12 independent cities in Virginia, 29 West Virginia counties, and 6 Pennsylvania counties. After a year of all the hurricanes Elena, Gloria, and Juan, as well as flooding in Puerto Rico, the American Red Cross ran out of money and funds while responding to the flood tragedy.

Even though this was in 1985 over 30 years ago its still overall one of the most famous and well known events in Roanoke and Virginia.

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The Flood We Never Knew!