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Rappahannock: Heavy rains pushing river over its banks

Bruce McDaniel and his son Reilly watch the rapid rise of the Rappahannock River from the front steps of Bruce McDaniel's home at the end of Sophia Street in Fredericksburg on Wednesday.  The two moved furniture and belongings to the second floor of the home and on the hillside behind it in anticipation of a 22 foot crest this morning.

Bruce McDaniel and his son Reilly watch the rapid rise of the Rappahannock River from the front steps of Bruce McDaniel’s home at the end of Sophia Street in Fredericksburg on Wednesday. The two moved furniture and belongings to the second floor of the home and on the hillside behind it in anticipation of a 22 foot crest this morning. (PETER CIHELKA / THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

Three days of relentless, heavy rain closed area roads, made for a soggy and dangerous commute and was expected to push the swirling Rappahannock River this morning to its highest point in nearly 11 years.

As of Wednesday evening, more than 4 inches of rain had fallen in Fredericksburg, according to the University of Mary Washington weather station, with larger amounts reported in spots around the area.

Parts of Culpeper County had numerous flooded roads, with water coming up onto the parking lot at Culpeper Town Mall Shopping Center. Parts of the county received more than 5 inches since Monday afternoon.

Across the area, forecasters called for up to another 1 inches by this morning.

The Rappahannock’s rapid rise through Wednesday was a source of concern for city officials. The National Weather Service predicted it would crest at just under 23 feet around 8 this morning at City Dock. Flood stage there is 18 feet.

The last time the water was that high was on Sept. 20, 2003, in the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel, when the Rappahannock crested at 19.4 feet at the landing.

Some area school systems closed after-school and evening activities Wednesday because of the rain.

Homeowners weren’t the only ones keeping an eye out for basement flooding.

Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Church, off White Oak Road in Stafford, canceled services Wednesday and today’s revival because of water in the basement.

River Road in Stafford was closed to traffic early on Wednesday as were Old Mill Park and City Dock in Fredericksburg as the brown, rushing water in the Rappahannock crept up the bank. Heritage Trail near Normandy Village was closed to pedestrians.

Some riverside businesses were keeping a wary eye on the rising river.

“So far, so good,” said an employee at Amy’s Cafe, which sits on West Cambridge Street in Falmouth above the Rappahannock. The restaurant wasn’t expecting any impact from the rising water.

CLEARING THE WAY

Bill Micks, co-owner of the Virginia Outdoor Center off Fall Hill Avenue on the river, was busy getting equipment out of the way. The Friends of the Rappahannock also has its headquarters at the center.

“FOR has lots of events” at the picnic area and pavilion, Micks said. “We went in this morning and secured all the sites.”

He said the outdoor center sits well above the river, but that part of the land near the shore would be under water by morning.

“So far, we appear to be holding up well,” said Doug Fawcett, Fredericksburg’s director of utilities. “We’ll be closely monitoring our sanitary and storm sewer systems. We’re at high flows, which sometimes create issues.”

Massaponax High School junior Jack Sumner talks on his phone while looking at flood waters at City Dock in Fredericksburg on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Sumner's visit was at 1:30 p.m. By 4:10 p.m. waters reached the 16' mark on flood gauge to his right.  (PETER CIHELKA / THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

Massaponax High School junior Jack Sumner talks on his phone while looking at flood waters at City Dock in Fredericksburg on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Sumner’s visit was at 1:30 p.m. By 4:10 p.m. waters reached the 16′ mark on flood gauge to his right. (PETER CIHELKA / THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

A RIVER RISING

High water on the river begins to take its toll at 18 feet at City Dock. That’s when water reaches riverside parking lots and two homes on Sophia Street near the dock.

The last time the Rappahannock neared flood stage was last June 11 when it rose to 15.9 feet.

Before that, back-to-back storms in May 2008 dumped about 5 inches of rain on the area, and the river crested at 15 feet.

Those were dwarfed by the flooding following Hurricane Fran in September 1996, when the river crested at 26.9 feet at City Dock. The flood reached several blocks of Sophia Street and inundated parts of Falmouth.

That storm dumped 3 to 5 inches of rain on Fredericksburg, and up to 11 inches in counties to the west. It took two days for that wave of water to arrive here.

In June 1972, when the remnants of Hurricane Agnes dumped 6.5 inches here and up to 9 inches west of the city, the river crested at 39.1 feet—way above the visual gauges at City Dock.

That storm led to widespread flooding in the city and Falmouth.

The record, 42.6 feet, was set on Oct. 16, 1942, with extensive flooding downtown, and water covering parts of Caroline, Charlotte and Hanover streets.

Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, which caused widespread damage along the Northeast coast, dropped 6 inches of rain here, but the Rappahannock remained several feet below flood stage because the heaviest rain was concentrated along the coast.

The largest single-day rainfall, according to The Free Lance–Star’s records, was Oct. 16, 1942, when 6.17 inches were recorded.

Reporters Donnie Johnston and Pam Gould contributed to this story.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

rdennen@freelancestar.com

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