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Flood devastates historic Richmond district

5 deaths reported in a surprise storm

RICHMOND, Va. -- Flooding touched off by the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston left at least five people dead in Virginia yesterday and devastated a historic Richmond neighborhood that was the heart of the Confederate capital during the Civil War.

In the city's hard-hit Shockoe Bottom district, dozens of cars that had been carried off by the raging floodwaters were strewn about the streets, which were caked with mud. Numerous businesses and apartments were flooded. A produce truck lay overturned. A brick building had collapsed onto several vehicles.

Residents and city officials described a scene of terror as floodwaters fed by a foot of rain swept through the low-lying area on Monday, reaching depths of up to 10 feet. Rescue crews helped lift passengers out the windows of a marooned bus, and panicked motorists raced to escape their cars as the floodwaters engulfed them.

City officials closed off 20 blocks of the Shockoe Bottom district -- or about half of the historic area -- near the James River, declaring them off limits until the buildings can be inspected to make sure they are safe.

Officials said that the damage would easily be in the millions of dollars but that it was too early to provide an estimate.

"The devastation to a lot of the businesses in Shockoe Bottom is overwhelming," said Governor Mark R. Warner, who walked through the debris-strewn streets. He said he would ask Washington to declare a state of emergency, making residents eligible for federal aid.

The storm surprised meteorologists, who had forecast no more than 4 inches of rain. But the system parked itself over the Richmond area for several hours. Northeast of the city, rural King William County received 14 inches, the National Weather Service said.

"This truly was an act of God," the governor said.

Most of the buildings in the low-lying district are two- and three-story brick structures, primarily warehouses and other commercial buildings converted to restaurants, nightclubs, and loft apartments. A few buildings date from before the Civil War.

In the 19th century, the Shockoe Bottom district was a thriving industrial center of tobacco warehouses and factories, most of which was reduced to ruins after the city fell to Union troops in 1865.

In Richmond's historic Church Hill district, the rain triggered a mudslide that tore off the face of a 30-foot hill, trapping cars in 3 feet of mud.

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