The Flood of '85
By Linda Angle Miller, College Archivist
It wasn't the forty days and forty nights of biblical proportions, but it certainly seemed that way by Monday morning, Nov. 4, 1985. After four days of steady rain - remnants of Tropical Storm Juan - people had begun making jokes about building an ark. Little did we know . . .
The heavy rain, totaling 6.61 inches, began that morning, but with the ground already saturated from the previous 4 inches, the creeks and rivers began to swell quickly. In the days before cell phones and Maroon Alerts, warning came by word of mouth and landlines.
The alarm hit Trexler early on. Chemistry professor Dr. Ron Oetgen looked out his office window and was amazed to see that Market Street looked like a river. On second glance, he spotted students canoeing "downstream." Dr. Ben Huddle was lecturing his Chemistry class when a student cried out, "There goes my car down the river."
John Long, '89, in class on the ground floor, saw a student running through the hall, stopping at each door calling for everyone to move their cars if they were in lots near the creeks. Physics Professor Bob Hudson warned Richard Smith '86 to move his truck. "When I arrived at the truck, the water was halfway up the front tires," Smith wrote in a 25th anniversary compilation of flood memories published in The Roanoke Times on Nov. 5, 2010. "Another five or 10 minutes and I would have been like some people who lost their vehicles in the creek that day."
The western/lower side of campus was hit hard. Small creeks that trickled gently a week earlier had become raging torrents, moving swiftly, overflowing banks. The waters running past Bast on the north side pushed cars askew in their parking spaces and flowed into Market Street. Behind the Sigma Chi house (now Shenandoah) the creek flowed over its banks on both sides, turning the Quad (now First Year Complex) into an island. Students lashed cars to trees hoping to prevent them from floating or being pushed into one another.
Campus Safety Director Tom Turner '83 received the emergency phone call while at Roanoke Memorial Hospital with his son. "Come back; the campus is flooding; cars are floating!" When he returned to campus, Market Street and the parking lots on both sides of the street were flooded. The primary focus, according to Turner, was not only the safety of those affected by the flooding waters, but also getting faculty, staff and students who lived off campus to their homes.
But even that was a challenge for many. Foreign Languages Chair Dr. Pat Gathercole was swept off her feet while trying to get to her home on Highfield Road to feed her pets. The story varies as to whether students or a branch saved her. Ron Oetgen tried several routes to get to his Carrollton Avenue home and was turned back each time by blocked streets. He finally made it to Carrollton and hitched a ride on a large truck that crossed the flooded street, dropping him at his home.
The athletic field (now C. Homer Bast Track) received the most damage. Recently renovated, the field was flooded when the grate at the north end became covered with leaves and debris. The water flowed over the grate, channeled through the field, and became one huge muddy puddle.
Around the Roanoke Valley the situation was similar, and in many cases more serious. The College community jumped in to help. That evening, seven freshman girls slogged through the waters to the Salem Civic Center to help victims seeking shelter. They sorted contributions, helped settle incoming families, and provided assistance as directed by Red Cross workers. Students in Walden House organized a collection to provide a fund for students, faculty and staff who had suffered damage to homes, cars and goods. The home of Dr. Bob Jenkins '61, for example, had to be demolished because of the excessive damage from Dry Branch which flowed behind - and that day, through - the house.
These are only a few of the many stories of that day. For those who were here, it remains one of those memorable life moments that you can answer without hesitation, "Where were you during the Flood of '85?"