To paraphrase Prince, should the citizens of Lynchburg start to worry like it’s 1985?

With threats of torrential rain through the weekend, it’s understandable that some Central Virginians would be feeling the onset of déjà vu as they recall the monster Flood of November 1985. Indeed, there are definite similarities between then and now, starting with the relatively minor tropical storm named Juan that triggered the 1985 siege. Juan didn’t blow very hard, but he generated lots of water, and the ground was already saturated from earlier rains.

Now, the area is tracking another, much more powerful tropical visitor with a Spanish name — Joaquin — that threatens perhaps to follow in the 30-year-old path of Juan. Or, veer out to sea. It depends on which meteorological model you believe.

From the perspective of this newspaper, at least the current storm system picked early October instead of early November. In 1985, The News & Advance found itself nearly drowning not only in water, but news.

We all knew in advance what the big story would be in the Nov. 6, 1985 edition — the result of the lieutenant governor’s race involving Doug Wilder. If Wilder won, he would become the first African-American to claim one of the state’s three highest offices, and that was a very big deal.

But so was the storm.

James River flooding tends to be of the delayed action variety. In 1985, it wasn’t so much the Central Virginia precipitation that was the problem (unless you lived in the tiny hamlet of Montebello, where more than 19 inches of rain fell in a matter of days), but the torrents that fell on the mountain slopes far upriver. Like a bad loan coming due, that high water eventually rolled into Lynchburg.

A lot of high water. The 42.15-foot crest at the Holcomb Rock dam just upriver from downtown was the steepest measured in the state that tumultuous week, and long-suffering Griffin Pipe had water 10 feet up inside its plant. Another waterside Lynchburg industry, the Lynchburg foundry, was so badly mauled by the river that it never really recovered. Water reached almost to the top of the old Williams Viaduct across the James.

Even worse, the fierce and muddy crest contained all manner of debris, including tanker cars and chlorine gas canisters snatched away from vulnerable businesses and riverside railroads.

“A railroad car bobbing down the river like a cork is not something you see every day,” said city emergency official Robert Martin.

Nor is the demise of a supposedly sturdy metal bridge with people standing on it. That bridge connected Treasure Island — owned by Thomas Road Baptist Church and used before the flood primarily to house equipment for the Liberty University football team — with the mainland, and it was a wonderful vantage point from which to marvel at the rampaging James. Then something big and fast-moving clobbered the span and swept it away as if it were a bridge of twigs. Fortunately, most of the awed observers escaped to the shore in time, and those who didn’t were close enough to the bank to be rescued.

In fact, no one died locally in what became known as the Election Day Flood. Nevertheless, houses were lost, businesses were damaged irreparably, and 6 million pounds of tobacco were drenched and ruined in Lynchburg’s Helme Warehouse, an event sometimes noted as the official end to the city’s rich tobacco history. The flood also ended Liberty University’s football season, since all of the team’s equipment was on its way downriver to Richmond.

Doug Wilder won that Tuesday, but his state lost.

In subsequent years, improvements were made to the system of James River dams, tributary “wing dams” and gauges upriver to provide more advance notice of onrushing disaster. So far, though, this upgraded network hasn’t been truly tested since the 1985 flood.

Let’s hope it stays that way.

Darrell Laurant is a retired longtime columnist for The News & Advance.

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