Remembering the 1995 flood

U.S. Route 29 sustained heavy damage near the Greene-Madison line as the waters of the Rapidan River surged below. The bridge, somehow, remained.

It’s been 25 years since the skies opened up and dropped an incredible amount of rain on Central Virginia on Tuesday, June 27, 1995. Into an already soaked ground, two storms were mostly responsible for the severe event in our region. The first system (the Piedmont storm) developed over Madison County and propagated slowly south producing 4-11 inches of rain down the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The second system (the Madison storm) developed over the same area but remained quasi-stationary along those eastern slopes for about eight hours, producing 24 inches of rain. According to a United States Geological Survey report, during 16 hours as much as 30 inches of rain fell, with approximately 25 inches falling in a five-hour period. 

This was the worst flash flooding in Virginia since Hurricane Camille came through in 1969.

Flooding from the South River and Conway River spilled over into the Rapidan River, bringing with it so much force that it made so that the U.S. 29 bridge at the Greene County-Madison County line impassable.

“We’ve received dozens of calls about flooded basements,” Greene County Sheriff William Morris told the Greene County Record around noon the fateful day of June 27, 1995. “The South River and Middle River areas are the worst. The creeks at Mutton Hollow and Bacon Hollow are way up.”

It seemed that the sheriff knew something worse was yet to come. “… If we get any more water, we’re going to be in trouble,” he said.

By 4 p.m., flash flood warnings were issued, and numerous roads were closed; many homes and businesses had lost power. When the waters finally receded, the U.S. 29 bridge would remain standing, but the pavement leading up to the bridges was gone or covered with debris.

A half-dozen homes were destroyed, and many others suffered major damage. In addition, at least 30 vehicles were totaled, and more than 500 acres of farmland and 20 miles of fencing were destroyed.

“The water just came in here so fast, we hardly had enough time to get out,” said Sonny Slaughter, whose home was washed off its foundation right before his eyes.

“My son-in-law lives about 3 ½ miles up the road, and he call me up and said, ‘you better be getting out of there. If they get any more rain up on the mountain, when it reaches you it’s going to wash you out,’” Slaughter told the Greene County Record after the storm. “I kinda laughed at him; we’ve had rains like this before.”

But as he watched the Middle River continue to rise around his home, he finally decided to get in his car and leave. “There was nothing you could do. It was just a nightmare,” he said. “I never thought anything like this would happen in my lifetime.”

As the Middle River rose 12 to 15 feet in just an hour, trees and debris hit the side of Slaughter’s house. When the floods subsided, all that was left of his home was its foundation.

Rescue workers, and ordinary residents, were praised for saving lives. “Everybody jumped in to help,” Sheriff Morris said as he surveyed the damage three days later. “The cooperation between various agencies was just unbelievable.”

“They deserve a lot of credit,” Dogwood Valley resident Robert Gresham said at the time in praising the Stanardsville, Ruckersville and Dyke volunteer fire companies. “I know they haven’t had any sleep for days, but they’ve done a heck of a job getting to people.”

People, in return, got food and drinks to the rescue workers. “[Ruckersville resident] Tom Powell has fed us constantly since the floods started,” Morris said. “Before the Red Cross and Salvation Army got here, he was providing us with dozens of pizzas and drinks to keep us going.”

A flood relief drive by the Piedmont United Way helped the local chapter of the American Red Cross raise more than $156,000 to help with disaster relief.

In addition, volunteers from the Church of the Brethren Disaster Response Teams and other many others as well helped repair homes along the Middle River area of Kinderhook.

The number of volunteers, in fact, was “overwhelming,” according to Richard Lamb of the Shiloh Church of the Brethren in Kinderhook. “If we can’t use them all, some of them get upset,” he said. “They can’t wait to come cover and work. We don’t even have to call them.”

Some 30 people from Grace Episcopal Church came out on a hot July 15 to help with cleanup efforts at the Edgewood Farm Nursery, which was destroyed by the flooding. “They did hard, dirty work made even more difficult because of the high humidity and heat, but were absolutely wonderful and positive about their efforts — even offering to come back a second time,” Edgewood Farm Nursery partner Eleanor J. Schwartz said in thanking them at the time.

Despite the devastation, all roads were opened within days – the result of work by Virginia Department of Transportation crews and contractors.

Repairs to the roads were needed to help utility crews have access to areas that lost electricity and communications. “There were whole communities cut off from their homes and families,” said VDOT Culpeper District Maintenance Engineer Gale Lipscomb at the time. “We had to get in there in a hurry to help them begin restoring their lives.”

Emergency work also was done on the rivers and streams after the flooding. The Natural Resources Conservation Service worked in the months following to have properties such as Tommy Shelton’s farm along the South River. During the flooding, the raging waters tore away the riverbank adjacent to two of Shelton’s chicken houses.

“We are working to save these agricultural structures,” Frank Sweet, then-Greene County Extension Agent told the Greene County Record. “Another flood would have put this building in the river.

“We also are helping fish habitat in the stream and preventing potential downstream damage in the future,” he said.

Just before Christmas, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, in conjunction with VDOT, restocked the South River with more than 1,000 rainbow trout.

“We’re confident that the habitat is there to support the fish,” Tom Gunter, VDGIF biologist, said on Dec. 12, 1995. “We are not yet back to normal, but the healing process has begun on the South River.”

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