RICHMOND, Va. - Battering wind and record-setting rain from Tropical Storm Gaston caused at least five deaths as a deluge washed away roads, flooded houses and businesses, and sent vehicles floating down the streets of Richmond. Five people were confirmed dead by late yesterday, and several others were reported missing.
On Monday afternoon, rushing waters replaced rush-hour traffic in downtown Richmond where a flood wall, built in 1995 to contain the James River in such storms, stood with its gates open because powerful rains had outstripped the river's rise and raced downhill.
At the bottom of historic Church Hill, cars floated past the Farmers' Market as swiftly and easily as the boats that plied the river 200 years ago. Swift-water rescue teams brought stranded drivers and passengers to safety as the waters rose on both sides of the James.
Yesterday, Gov. Mark Warner visited the Shockoe Bottom district, where floodwater reached 9 to 10 feet, a few blocks downhill from the state's Capitol and the Executive Mansion. In some places, cars had come to rest atop one another; others clustered against buildings or light poles.
Warner told a group of Shockoe Bottom business owners that small-business low-interest loans would be available.
As another major storm, Hurricane Frances, makes its way north, the state faces the possibility of more devastation this week. Warner said he was keeping an eye on the hurricane.
"I just checked, and it looks like it might be veering a little off course. But in light of Isabel a year ago and Gaston this week, we're going to err on the side of extra-preparedness," he said.
About 8 p.m. Monday, after five hours of high wind, heavy rains and several tornado warnings for the area, the governor declared a state of emergency for affected areas across central Virginia.
About 1,000 people were evacuated from their homes in Richmond, where the storm's effects were felt hardest.
The strip of Interstate 95 that runs through the heart of Richmond was closed Monday night as driving rain, heavy wind gusts and flash floods caused at least 20 accidents. By yesterday morning, 18 primary and 161 secondary roads in central Virginia were closed, flooded or washed out by Gaston, which was downgraded to a tropical depression.
Between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Monday, the National Weather Service issued multiple tornado warnings in central Virginia, sometimes only minutes between the end of one warning and the beginning of the next. The weather service confirmed that two tornadoes touched down in Nottoway and James City counties.