How Hurricane Juan led to Roanoke Valley’s catastrophic Election Day Flood of 1985

Safety in the Storm

(WFXR) — More than 35 years ago, Southwest Virginia endured one of its worst natural disasters ever. It started as a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico in late October in 1985. It then strengthened to a tropical storm and then a Category 1 hurricane before making landfall along the Louisiana coastline.

After moving a short distance inland, it weakened and then looped to the south and back into the Gulf of Mexico. From there, it moved eastward, making a second landfall on Halloween near Mobile, Alabama. Juan then moved northward, weakening over land. It eventually weakened to an extratropical low over Kentucky on Nov. 1. Its remnants along with a stationary boundary allowed for copious amounts of rain over a six day period.

More than a foot of rain fell in Covington. Close to 11-and-a-half inches was recorded in Hot Springs. Roanoke saw almost 11 inches with Lynchburg totaling more than six inches of rainfall.

The bulk of the rain occurred on the last day, falling onto the already saturated ground. This led to the Roanoke River rising in less than a 12-hour span from just under five feet at 9 a.m. to a record crest of 23.35 feet by 7 p.m.

(Image courtesy of Tommy Firebaugh).

The Roanoke River inundated downtown Roanoke and filled what was once Victory Stadium with muddy water.

(Image courtesy of Tommy Firebaugh).

Widespread flash flooding and extensive river flooding left people trapped in their cars and even clinging to trees. As many as 125 people were rescued in one day by a helicopter crew.

Sadly, 10 people lost their lives in and around Roanoke in what is often referred to as the Election Day Flood of 1985.

View a copy of the final report on Hurricane Juan from the National Hurricane Center below.

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