Ten people were killed.
Consider nothing else. That is what makes the Flood of 1985, which happened 30 years ago Wednesday, the Roanoke Valley’s biggest weather event in history. Nothing else — not snowstorms, not a couple of tornadoes, not any of the 40 other Roanoke River floods since 1901, not the derecho — measures up to the Flood of ’85, locally, in terms of loss of life.
A Roanoke River crest of 23.35 feet, a rainfall total of 6.61 inches in a calendar day, and a damage price tag of $200 million are also figures that are unmatched in Roanoke’s recorded weather history. But it is that death toll that so starkly marks Nov. 4, 1985 .
And it is that number, 10, in the fatalities column that we should be most focused on never seeing again.
The other numbers are out of our control.
Someday, there will be a Roanoke River crest that will go beyond 23.35 feet (13.35 feet above flood stage) at the Walnut Street bridge .
Someday, there will be more than 6.61 inches of rain in a day.
Someday, there will be a natural disaster of some sort — another flood being the best guess — capable of more than $200 million in damage in our valley.
But by individually and collectively assessing our disaster readiness, knowing where to go and what to do if the waters rise or the winds howl or the snows bury beyond what we’ve seen before, having extra supplies on hand if roads are cut off and/or the electricity fails, we can limit the loss of life the next time such an extreme event happens.
And there will be a next time. Last time was almost the next time.
Just take a look at what happened in South Carolina during the first week of October. Their flood could have been our flood, too.
We were never in line for the 20-plus inches of rain that parts of South Carolina got, modeled with impressive accuracy days in advance. But we could have easily gotten in on the 6- to 10-inch rains at the perimeter if some small atmospheric quirks hadn’t intervened with dry air aloft and a slight shift south.
And that would have been enough for at least something similar to the 10th highest flood on record (14.4 feet) that occurred a few days earlier on Sept. 29, with something as severe as 1985 at least reasonably possible, perhaps more so than it has ever been in the past 30 years.
We may have had as high as a one in five chance of a 1985-like flood event on that Friday and Saturday, Oct. 2 and 3, and about a coin’s flip chance of a Top 10 Roanoke River flood. Call us blessed, fortunate, lucky, whatever you will, but the rains came slowly instead of in torrents, and totaled near the low end of the potential range.
There was value, though, in both the flood that happened and the one that didn’t.
“The recent rains tested the capacity’s of the Roanoke River and the mitigation projects, we found that rain and water levels that would have once caused significant impacts along the Roanoke River were less detrimental and caused little impact on the community,” said Marci Stone, emergency management coordinator for the city of Roanoke.
Thirty years is a notable milestone. It is the point when many consider that “current events” become “history.” In atmospheric science, 30 years is commonly considered the minimum duration of time for long-term patterns to be climate instead of just weather.
So perhaps we are on the threshold of the Flood of 1985 truly becoming a historical event. There are many around who still have vivid and painful memories of 1985, but many others in the Roanoke Valley who either weren’t alive or weren’t living in the valley when the flood happened. As time moves on, there will be more who consider the flood as history rather than a memory.
As a historic event, let us not forget it. Let us learn from it.
Let’s do what we can, individually and collectively, to be prepared for a 30-foot Roanoke River flood in the next 30 years, and hope it never happens.
Weather Journal runs on Wednesdays.