36 years later: Looking back on the Election Day Flood of 1985


Image courtesy: Tommy Firebaugh

ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — Portions of southwest Virginia were underwater after remnants of Hurricane Juan dropped heavy rainfall over the region 36 years ago.

The Election Day Flood of 1985 is still considered one of the worst natural disasters to impact the area. Ten people lost their lives in the Roanoke Valley, including three people who drove into flooded rivers and three others who refused to evacuate. According to the National Weather Service, damages were estimated at $225 million.

The culprits behind the devastating flooding were the remnants of Hurricane Juan and a stalled frontal boundary. Juan made landfall near Pensacola, Fla. on Oct. 31, 1985, before weakening to an extratropical low over Kentucky on Nov. 1.

On Nov. 3, the remnants of Juan were absorbed by a stationary boundary. On that same day, a low pressure system developed off the coast of Florida and moved steadily north. This system brought a plume of warm tropical air into the east-central United States.

This chain of events allowed for copious amounts of rain over a five-day period in southwest Virginia.

Many spots in southwest Virginia received record amounts of rainfall. The city of Roanoke saw 6.61 inches of rainfall in a 24-hour period on Nov. 4.

Market Square in downtown Roanoke was about three to four feet underwater. The city of Roanoke says floodwaters displaced homes and vehicles, as well as commercial and agricultural structures. It is estimated that about 3,000 homes and 100 businesses were damaged during the flood.

A report from the National Weather Service says one helicopter crew rescued about 125 people during the day.

The rain also caused local rivers and creeks to rise. The Roanoke River rose 19 feet in 12 hours, cresting at a record height of 23.35 feet on Nov. 4. Many streams such as Tinker Creek, Mason Creek, and Peters Creek poured out across roadways, rail lines, bridges, and into homes and businesses.

After the flood, the city of Roanoke completed a number of flood mitigation projects to build resilience in the area.

Roanoke Stormwater says it’s important to make sure you and your family or business are prepared in the event of a flood. The government organization offers a guide on flood preparedness in the city of Roanoke.

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