It wasn’t Roanoke’s first or last flood, but it’s still the Big One. And the ripples of the Flood of ’85 are still being felt downstream.
The remnants of Hurricane Juan soaked Western Virginia starting on Nov. 1, 1985. The deluge hit a frightening climax on Election Day, Nov. 4, when the Roanoke airport recorded 6.61 inches. Swelled by rain pounding steep slopes upstream, the Roanoke River crested at a record 23.35 feet on Nov. 4. Tributaries backed up. Angry waters submerged downtown streets and surged into businesses. Three died in the city.
To get a sense of how much water raged through the valley, consider this. Since the 19th century, the United States Geological Survey has operated a gauge beneath the Walnut Avenue bridge in Southeast Roanoke. On a typical day, the flow beneath the bridge is around 200 cubic feet per second.
On Nov. 4, some 32,000 cubic feet of brown, debris-filled water swept through every second — 160 times the average.
“Flooding is not a linear thing,” said Marcus Aguilar, an engineer with the city’s stormwater division. “It’s exponential in the way that it happens.”
The USGS characterized the event as a 200-year-flood, the city as a 175-year flood. Those are just estimates. “The problem with big flood events like that is that they’re statistical outliers,” Aguilar said. There is little data on floods that happen every 100, 200 or 500 years. And the landscape has changed dramatically in the past few centuries.
Still, ’85 was “our flood of record, it’s the one that everybody remembers … the largest one we’ve ever had, significant in the sense that it was a principal driver of the flood reduction project,” Aguilar said.
In 1989, Roanoke got serious about restraining the river. Voters passed a bond referendum to help fund the $72 million Roanoke River Flood Reduction Project, a joint project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “This project entailed extensive acquisition of flood prone properties and the construction of levees, flood walls and flood storage ‘bench cuts’ along the River to protect critical assets and reduce flooding,” according to the city. The project concluded in 2012.
That doesn’t mean the river will never flood again. The Roanoke River Flood Reduction Project was built to contain a 25-year flood, and to mitigate, not prevent, a 100-year flood.
Rains from Hurricane Michael on Oct. 11, 2018, provided a test. “The bench cuts filled up,” Aguilar said. “That was a really good proving ground for the bench cuts. They did exactly what they were supposed to do.”
While the major river work is done, the city continues to address some of the 13 tributaries within city limits.
“Because the tributary waterways are smaller, you can do smaller size projects, and actually make a dent in flooding on the tributaries,” Aguilar said. “And the city can actually reasonably afford to do projects like that.”
In 2022 the city purchased and demolished the flood-prone Ramada Inn on Franklin Road. The property is bisected by Ore Branch, a once bucolic stream now confined in a stone-lined channel 13 feet wide.
“We’re now working on reopening the stream and creating essentially a small scale of this,” Aguilar said, pointing to a bench cut on the Roanoke River. “We’re going to go in and excavate along the banks of Ore Branch so that when it floods, it spills into that, there’s no damage. So we’ll take that channel, remove the walls, remove the concrete bottom and open it back up, so that the banks are a more natural slope. And then we’ll excavate the soil along the sides with a floodplain just like this, except smaller, to fit the site, plant it with native, appropriate vegetation, stabilize the bed of the stream and the banks of the stream, and re-appropriate that tributary as an asset for our community.”
Aguilar was sitting at a picnic table overlooking a bench cut near Bridge Street in southwest Roanoke. On a placid day, with bikers pedaling the greenway, it’s easy to forget that the river can still deliver a deadly punch. Upstream, the river is more powerful than it used to be, like a boxer that has stepped up in weight class.
The watershed of the river, from Roanoke upstream to its sources along the Eastern Continental Divide, is about 500 square miles, including 43 square miles in Roanoke, Aguilar said.
The upstream drainage includes Salem and parts of Roanoke, Floyd, and Montgomery counties.
“Think about the history of Virginia,” Aguilar said. Bottom lands were cleared for agriculture and mountainsides logged for timber. “So when that happened, especially up on the face of Poor Mountain, a lot of the soil on the face of those steep mountains was lost.”
Bottom Creek Gorge is in the rugged country near the tricorner of Montgomery, Floyd and Roanoke counties. A handful of families, descendants of early settlers, eked out a living here into the 20th century. The 1,657-acre property is now owned by the Nature Conservancy. The second highest waterfall in Virginia forms part of the headwaters of the Roanoke River’s South Fork.
“It’s steep. It’s rocky. There used to be really robust, old growth forest up there,” Aguilar said. “It’s gone. All the stuff up there is new growth, the soil is thin.” Consequently the ground soaks up less water than it used to.
The South Fork joins the North Fork near the Interstate 81 exit at Ironto.
“The folks at the Weather Service used to tell me … that between the time that the rain starts falling on the basin, and when it shows up here in the city, it’s about maybe six hours. So that seems like a long time. But that’s actually a really fast river basin, and that’s because all of that water that’s coming out of the headwaters is moving quickly.”
To make a dent in the increased flood risk required a project as big as the Roanoke River Flood Reduction Project, Aguilar said. The Corps engineers removed 0.4 million cubic yards of the riverbank, giving the river room to spread out and lowering the risk of flooding for many properties near the river.
The city submitted draft flood map revisions to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2021. In August, the city announced FEMA’s approval. Of the 1,436 parcels studied, 44% were placed in a lower risk category, and 4% percent were placed in a higher risk category. (The rest were unchanged.) The changes have implications for permitting and insurance requirements.
Zone AE is the hundred-year floodplain, meaning that for any given year there is a 1% chance of flooding. Zone AE properties are required to carry flood insurance. Zone X is the 500-year flood zone, meaning a 0.2% annual chance. Insurance is optional here.
One property affected by the new maps is Riverdale, the massive redevelopment of the former American Viscose property in Southeast Roanoke. Developer Ed Walker referred questions to Benjamin Crew, a landscape architect with Balzer & Associates who is assisting with site development at Riverdale.
Crew said that while all of Riverdale is still in the 100-year floodplain, parts of it are no longer in the floodway. The floodway is wider than the footprint of the river at normal flow, but narrower than the 100-year floodplain. “The floodway line shifted in some areas which was beneficial because there are many more restrictions within the floodway than there are in the floodplain. If we have an area on site that’s gone from floodway to floodplain, we can now construct a new building within that area. There’s new development opportunities there.”
The new maps also updated the water elevation expected in a flood, “which in turn guides how we redevelop and improve many of the existing structures that’ll be reused as part of the Riverdale project,” Crew said. If floodwaters were previously expected to rise four feet up a building, but now just two feet, less floodproofing is required.
There are also insurance benefits when a building is moved from the floodway to the floodplain, as rates are calculated differently, Crew said.
Commercial and residential property owners may obtain flood insurance through the government-run National Flood Insurance Program or through private insurers.
Chris Greene is a Georgia-based flood insurance agent and educator. He has studied Roanoke’s revised flood maps.
“Roanoke is in a pretty good situation compared to most parts of the country,” he said. “And one reason is that the city of Roanoke has really taken some good efforts to minimize flooding in the area. And I also expect to see an improvement to the CRS rating for Roanoke.”
The Community Rating System (CRS) is a voluntary incentive program that recognizes and encourages community floodplain management practices that exceed the minimum requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), according to FEMA. Over 1,500 communities participate nationwide.
“I fully expect some kind of additional discount to be added on there, because what we’re seeing here is really going above and beyond what FEMA’s required,” Greene said.
Insurance premiums are not directly tied to flood zoning, Greene said. Instead, insurers “look at things like distance to water, the type of flooding, flooding frequency, replacement cost of the building and the elevation of a building.”
But, placement in or out of Zone AE does determine whether insurance is legally required, and that is one reason some owners choose to dispute the assignments.
“We help people fight these changes every day,” Greene said. He cited one client who was having trouble selling his house. Greene helped him get the property changed from high risk to low risk based on its elevation. “Did it mean he didn’t need flood insurance? No, it just meant that the regulatory requirement was removed.”
Aguilar confirmed that citizens have the right to challenge flood zoning.
As a theoretical example, maps based on aerial photography may indicate that a corner of building touches the floodway. “So one possibility is that a surveyor goes out there, and they survey the corner of that building. And it’s not where we thought it was, and it’s actually outside of the floodway. Or maybe they survey and they say, actually it is in the floodway, we’ve confirmed it.” Part of the process is mapping building locations more precisely.
As long as rain falls, rivers will flood. Aguilar, with the stormwater division, said the goal is not to stop flooding, but to make Roanoke “a more flood resilient community. When the flood happens … we have the ability to recover without major disturbances to family life, local economy, the function of our community. That’s still a work in progress. It’s not done, but that’s an important thing for us as a division and the city as a whole.”