Remembering the Election Day flood of 1985

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The heat is turning up (figuratively and literally) days before this year’s gubernatorial race. While the next couple days will be seasonably warm and fair, over 30 years ago, an unforgettable flood disrupted the election of 1985.

Rain from the remnants of Hurricane Juan and a low-pressure system over Central Virginia led to devastating flooding that broke records, took lives, and caused millions in damage.

Weather conditions for the Election Day Flood started on Halloween as Hurricane Juan made landfall along the Gulf Coast and tracked north through Alabama. It weakened as it reached the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina. An approaching front absorbed the remnants of Juan and tropical moisture streamed ahead of it. This led to rainfall amounts of 1 to 4 inches across the Commonwealth prior to Election Day.

View of Downtown Richmond Nov 1985 facing south, courtesy VDEM

A developing system then emerged from the Central Plains and slowed the front. Tropical moisture continued to transfer vast amounts of moisture into Virginia. A new low-pressure system formed over the Gulf of Mexico and lifted through the Carolinas. Rainfall intensified with thunderstorms embedded with this low-pressure system and resulted in rainfall amounts of 6 to 10 inches from November 4 to November 5.

Montebello in Nelson County, one of the areas devastated by the floods from Hurricane Camille’s remnants in 1969, had the highest rainfall total at 19.7 inches.

The flooding that followed is one of the worst-ever floods in Virginia and was the worst flood for Roanoke. The Roanoke River crested at 23 feet, with rivers swelling to 18 feet within 6 hours. Boats and helicopters rescued people from the rushing water, with some seeking refuge on their rooftops.

Here in Richmond, the Huguenot and Mayo Bridges were closed due to the flooding on the James River. I-95 had limited access and was closed from the Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant down past Chippenham Parkway.

17th and Main, Richmond, courtesy of National Weather Service

By November 7, a day after the rain had ended, the James River crested at 30.76 feet at City Locks in Richmond.

“This really was the last major flood in metro Richmond before the flood wall was constructed,” 8News Chief Meteorologist John Bernier recalls.

The flood caused 22 fatalities and caused about $800 million in damages and created one of the lowest poll turnouts in Virginia history.

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