Wet and Wicked Weather in Western Virginia – Part 1

Wet and Wicked Weather in Western Virginia – Part 1

Roanoke is my adopted home, not my birthplace. I am, however, a proud native of the mountains of western Virginia, despite the time I spent down in the flatlands in that other city that starts with an “R”. When we moved to Roanoke, one fact about this region that amazed me is how much it floods. My perception might be colored by the fact that on the city’s official Flood Preparedness map, I live along one of those yellow “flood prone roads.” Sure enough, probably 5 times a year our road is officially out of service due to flash flooding (fortunately we live at the top of a hill). It’s remarkable to me how rapidly the waters in the Roanoke Valley rise and how greatly they fluctuate.

So it seems appropriate, as I sit and listen to it raining outside, to research the history of wild weather in Western Virginia. There have been a number of historically terrible wet weather events – enough to warrant multiple posts!

Obviously any list of wild weather in the region has to start with the flood of 1985 – the “Election Day” floods. As bad as the 2020 election cycle (and year in general) has been, we can still be thankful that we did not get 6.6 inches of rain. That is still the Roanoke record rainfall for a 24 hour period, as is the 18.5 feet that the Roanoke River rose in the space of 10 hours. Worst of all, 10 people died in the Roanoke area. All this was caused by the collision of Hurricane Juan and a low pressure front which stalled over Virginia. For comparison, the Roanoke River’s crest during that storm was over 6.5 feet higher than the worst flood during the years I’ve lived here (more on that later). It’s hard to visualize the impact of this flood on downtown Roanoke… but this video footage helps.

The next most infamous western Virginia weather event was even more terrible: the Nelson and Amherst County floods of August 19-20, 1969. This localized freak weather occurrence was also caused by the collision of multiple weather patterns. Hurricane Camille (known for the terrible damage it inflicted on the Gulf Coast) had been downgraded to a tropical depression, and was expected to continue to weaken as it crossed Virginia. Over the mountains, however, it collided with two other fronts in a way that caused it to shockingly intensify, producing almost continuous thunderstorms for several hours. Weather forecasts the day before showed the possibility for some rain, but what would take place that night was tragic. In 8 hours, up to thirty – thirty – inches of rain fell in certain areas, with catastrophic results. Physical features simply disappeared, swept away by water and mud; bridges, dams, homes, families, and entire communities were wiped out. Old timers still remember the terror of that night, the wild storms, and the rising water. In Nelson County, 1% of the entire population died, many of whose bodies were never found. 

[Norwood, Nelson County, VA]

So, as I sit in my cozy home at the top of the hill, I ponder those tragedies and thank God that all that I’ve dealt with is a wet basement. The weather is a constant reminder to us humans: as secure as we might feel, life is fragile, and we aren’t in control of the universe. Come to think of it, the entire year 2020 has been a pretty effective reminder of that fact.

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