WDBJ7 Archive: The flood of ‘85, the storm that submerged the Star City

Published: Nov. 4, 2023 at 9:00 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Many remember November 4, 1985, as a day of chaos in Southwest Virginia as flood waters quickly submerged our hometowns.

Roanoke residents were left in a state of confusion as flood waters swept away buildings, cars, and relics of a place they called home. Many were forced to evacuate, not knowing for certain what they would return to. Others found themselves trapped within flood waters, awaiting rescue from first responders.

62 people in Southwest Virginia and West Virginia would lose their lives, 10 of whom from Roanoke.

Those who fled their homes in Roanoke went to places of refuge hosted by the Salvation Army, including the Salem Civic Center, Patrick Henry High School, and Breckenridge Junior High.

One of the 280 people who stayed at the Salem Civic Center, Jesse Sewell, explained his grief. “I’m a grown man and I don’t like to cry but I can’t help it in this particular case,” he said.

First responders were met with many challenges to reach those who were in dire situations, as they too had to trek across impassible routes to reach those in need. The public was asked not to call first responders unless they were in extreme and urgent danger, due to a backlog of call responses.

WDBJ7 even made a helicopter rescue while gathering footage of the flood. Former Delegate Vic Thomas, his son Eric, his legislative aide, and a customer carrying his 4-year-old son were on top of the roof of a building. Photographer Mark Layman and Pilot Carl Milko quickly rescued the group as Lifeguard 10 was responding to nearby calls. 90 seconds after their rescue, the building was swept away.

Watch the full interview on the helicopter rescue with Eric Thomas by WDBJ7′s Joe Dashiell below.

The city was in urgent need, and a looming concern for first responders and Roanoke City officials regarded the state of the Roanoke Memorial Hospital, now known as Carilion Roanoke Memorial. The hospital lost power in all areas except the west wing, where patients in critical condition were transported quickly. Officials feared that the rising waters in the basement would seep into the electrical wiring, leaving the entire building without power, light, heat, or telephone service.

Firefighters rapidly pumped out 750 gallons of water a minute in an attempt to drain the six feet of water that remained. Nurses and students lined up dining trays and buckets along the stairwell to prevent the further spread of water within the building. As flood conditions didn’t let up, the hospital staff prepared to assist patients without power, deciding against evacuating the building.

Roanoke City Manager at the time, Bob Herbert, estimated the flood damage in Roanoke alone was roughly $115 to $125 million, which is equal to half a billion dollars in 2023. The Downtown Roanoke exit off of 460 was under six feet of water and resembled more a canal than a road, with many buildings only being accessible by boat.

Roanoke County Schools such as Northside High School closed their doors and students stayed the night in the building due to dangerous road conditions. Other schools delayed dismissal, waiting for the go-ahead from city officials to approve bus routes.

Many were stuck at a location that was a part of their daily routine, such as school or work, unaware that they would spend many hours stranded away from home.

C&P, now known as Verizon, and ConTel Phone Companies urged the public to refrain from making phone calls and if making a phone call was necessary, keep the conversation short as phone lines were swamped with people searching for answers.

Businesses were flooded and hometown staples were washed away within moments.

As the water slowly trickled out of the Star City, many were left to pick up the pieces as mud and debris scattered across the city. Over 3,000 homes and businesses were damaged by the storm.

Remnants of the tragic flood can still be found within Roanoke, including a photography exhibit by Tommy Firebaugh at the Historical Society of Western Virginia Museum.

While it is possible to see flooding again in our hometowns, the flood of 1985 taught responders and residents alike the importance of weather alerts and preparing a safety plan for when a natural disaster strikes.

Watch the 2015 story by Joe Dashiell: