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Agnes flooded region 40 years ago this week

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For  this week’s Flashback, Kevin Morrow, Free Lance–Star photography technician, retrieved a passel of old negatives to round out Dan Liebenow’s contribution in remembrance of Agnes.

Photos show the flooded interior of an old movie theater, the Colonial, in the 900 block of Caroline Street; traffic congestion along Caroline Street; National Guardsmen directing traffic at the corner of Hanover and Caroline streets; the flooded Barefoot Greens seafood restaurant; Hughes Home nursing home residents watching the flood waters creeping up the street in front of them;  nursing home residents who were moved to the second story of Hughes Home; and a crowd jammed into a small Fredericksburg Fairgrounds building for a sale of fl00d-damaged goods. Some of the items were still wet.


The Free Lance-Star

Storms had not become a television spectator sport in 1972.

There was no weather channel with round-the-clock coverage beginning days in advance. No colorful Doppler radar, infrared or satellite images of “the big one” inching up the map. No warnings continuously crawling across the bottom of the screen.

But there was telephone, and Franklin Liebenow spent a lot of time using it to call the National Weather Service the week Hurricane Agnes brought torrential rains and flooding to Eastern states.

He could see the Rappahannock River rising just outside the door of his hardware store at 713 Sophia St., and the need to know how high flood waters would rise was personal.

He had to work quickly to save the store goods, and with bins full of nails and nuts and bolts and the like, he had a daunting job.

He and his son, Dan, home from college, loaded two rented U–Hauls. The National Guard lent a truck for more goods.

The store’s  lower shelves were cleared, but even so, the river crested a bit higher than anticipated, reaching the upper shelves.

Dan, who now lives in Spotsylvania County, recently read a Washingtonian magazine article about the 40th anniversary of “Agnes,” and shared this snapshot of his late father’s store and the rising river with the Flashback column.

“I remember when we got out what we could, my father threw the power off and we walked off,” Dan Liebenow recalled.

First, they sat across from Liebenow’s Hardware at the intersection of Sophia and Hanover streets, and as the water crept closer to them, they would move a few more feet  up Hanover Street.

The river crested at 39.1 feet as measured at the City Dock (flood stage is 18 feet). At Liebenow’s, it reached  4 feet inside the store, partially covered the mailbox by the front door.

The oil tank at the left of the building broke away and floated down river. Franklin Liebenow measured the high-water mark with a post, kept inside the store for all the subsequent years he owned the place. He sold the store in 1984, and it was later torn down to make way for Riverfront Park. He died in 2011, at age 89.

Agnes was the first named storm of the 1972 Atlantic hurricane season, making landfall in Florida on June 19, weakening to a tropical depression, then picking up steam again as a tropical storm June 21. It made its mark in floods and damage throughout the Eastern states, particularly Pennsylvania and New York.

As stated in the June 24 Free Lance–Star, two-thirds of Virginia was devastated by three days of flooding, leaving the state a disaster area.

Another headline called the Agnes flood the “costliest in Virginia history.”

In Fredericksburg, reporter James Mann wrote of flooding in many area businesses along Caroline Street and numerous homes in Normandy Village.

“The low-lying section of Falmouth was completely under water, while affected areas of the city included downtown Sophia Street, part of Normandy Village, and Dixon Street where Hazel Run joins the river.

“There were also numerous reports of streams flooding in all of the surrounding counties

“The scene in flooded sections of the city this morning was marked by crowds of spectators and volunteer workers, patrolling National Guardsmen and harried city employees.”

Agnes retired in 1972. Because of the storm’s toll,  her name will never again be used for a hurricane.

Jennifer Strobel: