Thirty-five years later, local photographer looks back on the Flood of ’85

Roanoke Valley News

ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — Monday, Nov. 4, 1985, is a day Tommy Firebaugh will always remember.

“That day we received six inches of rain. That’s a lot of rain, to the point where it was coming down almost in bucket loads,” said Firebaugh.

Murky waters, damaged businesses, and washed-up debris were just some of the many obstacles Firebaugh witnessed from his office building at the corner of Campbell Avenue and Jefferson Street. He was a product manager for Norfolk Southern, with a passion for photography.

The downtown area was impacted by remnants from Hurricane Juan. The weather system caused heavy periods of rainfall for several days straight.

“I looked down the street and there’s 2x4s and other construction material coming down Campbell Avenue headed eastbound, and I knew we were in trouble then,” Firebaugh said.

Rather than taking a mental picture, Firebaugh avoided the high waters and raced to his Bonsack home to grab his camera.

“I knew something was special, but something was building up that there should be a visual story told,” said Firebaugh.

Bringing essentials like a chest wader and a pair of fishing boots, Firebaugh cautiously walked through the streets of downtown Roanoke. For hours, he managed to capture sights – ones that haunt him to this day.

Like how the city’s lights were still on, despite the heavy flooding.

“The electrical wiring and all was really insulated well. It looked like the streets of Venice,” Firebaugh said.

Thirty-five years later, his pictures are on display at an exhibit at the Winston Link Museum.

While Firebaugh is proud of his work, he knows it was a day of fear and struggle for thousands of residents.

“I’m glad we got something to look back on because a lot of people lost so many things in the flood,” said Firebaugh.

With ten lives lost, and hundreds of people rescued, he says every generation can learn from the Flood of ’85.

“You never know when a disaster like that will hut,” Firebaugh stated, “basically, be prepared.”

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