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Heavy rainfall inundates roads around Roanoke, New River valleys

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If Florence came in like a lamb, Michael left as a lion.

While local officials put out a show of preparedness before Hurricane Florence brought its moderate flooding last month, the former Hurricane Michael brought major flash flooding to the Roanoke and New River Valleys on Thursday, stranding people in their cars, snarling traffic, closing schools, and inundating homes.

No deaths were reported as of Thursday evening, but at least half a dozen people were rescued from their cars after they had become surrounded by floodwaters.

Heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Michael led the National Weather Service to issue a flash flood warning for the Roanoke region for most the afternoon and into the evening. The Roanoke River was forecast to reach as high as 17.4 feet in Roanoke, which would be the eighth-highest on record dating to 1901. As of 10 p.m. Thursday, the river had reached at least 16.4 feet, which was the highest level in 14 years.

Late Thursday evening, River Walk apartments in Salem were being evacuated as the Roanoke River continued to rise.

Meanwhile, the New River at Radford topped 21 feet, or 7 feet above flood stage, late Thursday evening, one of its top five floods on record.

While the official rainfall totals at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport and the National Weather Service office at Blacksburg were in the 2 to 2 ½-inch range, other locations, especially just to the south, received as much as 6 inches. Rainfall rates of 2 inches per hour quickly overwhelmed both natural and artificial drainages, leading to widespread flooding.

Jenny Laughon lost her home for the second time this year.

On Memorial Day, Mud Lick Creek flooded the house on Edgewood Street in southwest Roanoke, leading to extensive damage. On Thursday, floodwaters all but destroyed it.

“We just spent tens of thousands of dollars fixing our home,” Laughon said, “and now we’re going to have to walk away from it.”

Laughon said on Thursday she was still in a state of shock. Her family was uprooted. They would have to stay with neighbors. Water had reached the second story of the home, but by the afternoon left only debris in its wake. The water receded so fast, she said, it blew their brand-new French doors out, leaving a hole in the house.

Fast-moving waters led to several water rescues throughout the region.

In Montgomery County, a 13-year-old became trapped in an all-terrain vehicle, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Brian Wright. The New River Valley swift-water rescue team helped rescue the teenager, although in the early afternoon, the vehicle remained overturned in a flooded creek.

Emergency officials were dealing with a slew of issues mainly on back roads, Wright said. The flooding had been more troublesome than that observed by deputies when Hurricane Florence dumped rain on the region last month.

Floyd County Sheriff Brian Craig described the flooding as a “countywide event.”

Four vehicles were abandoned after drivers found themselves caught in floodwaters at Buffalo Mountain Road, Spangler Mill Road, Daniel’s Run Road and Stonewall Road, he said.

In the Vinton area, three people were rescued by a swift-water team from a house on Ferguson Valley Road, according to Tiffany Bradbury, Roanoke Fire-EMS spokeswoman.

Thursday’s downpours occurred as the circulation center of Tropical Storm Michael tracked northeastward over the Carolinas, funneling dense moisture into the region with its counterclockwise circulation. The added lift of higher terrain and an approaching cold front added to the intensity of rainfall.

Michael was headed to sea on Thursday evening, with gusty northwest winds expected to usher in a long period of cooler, fall-like weather starting Friday — but also posing the risk of toppling trees in the wet ground and causing sporadic power outages.

Appalachian Power already had about 22,000 customers in Virginia without power after Thursday’s inclement weather, including more than 7,000 in Henry County, more than 2,000 in Franklin and Carroll counties and about 1,200 in Bedford County. Roanoke County and Ronanoke city combined for about 1,000 outages as of 10:30 p.m.

Texanna Adams, 63, said fast-moving water burst the banks of Mason Creek and pooled around her home in Salem within minutes Thursday afternoon.

“Once the creek came over the bank, that was it,” said Adams, who lives at Ramey’s Mobile Home Park.

Firefighters who headed out to the park to check on residents advised Adams, who uses a wheelchair, to evacuate. Water was already creeping up over her wheelchair ramp when first responders helped her and her service dog, Sophie Marie Pugsley, into one of their trucks.

Adams was one of three people who ultimately sought refuge at the Salem Civic Center, the city’s designated shelter, until floodwaters receded. She was joined by her son, who also lives at Ramey’s, but who had planned to wait out the storm at home until he learned his mother was at the center.

“He didn’t want me to be alone,” Adams said, adding jokingly, “He probably thought I’d get in trouble. I’d be out here trying to chat with everybody.”

Rescuers in Salem evacuated more than 40 people , a city spokesman said. At one point on Thursday, more than 25 streets or intersections were flooded.

Flooding led to at least a dozen schools in the region to close early. Road closures, heavy rain, and downed trees caused traffic backups, hampering the ability to get students home from school and complicating emergency responses.

In Craig County, one school bus with 20 students was forced to return to the school after flooding on a low-water bridge on Virginia 621, Superintendent Jeanette Warwick said. School officials expected them to be picked up later that day.

Roanoke County announced about 1:45 p.m. that all schools would be dismissed immediately.

All buses completed runs by 5 p.m. after the rain stopped, schools spokesman Chuck Lionberger said. An hour later, Lionberger said, only “a handful” of students throughout the school division were still waiting to be picked up by parents or guardians. Those students were still under staff supervision, he said.

In some instances, including at Clearbrook Elementary, buses were unable to navigate roads to reach students for pick up.

A few main routes were shut down in Roanoke on Thursday, including the intersection of Franklin Road and Brandon Avenue, and the Broadway Avenue/Wonju Street/Franklin Road intersection.

A major road near Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital closed Thursday night, an emergency dispatcher said.

Jefferson Street Southeast was shut down between Reserve Avenue Southwest and Williamson Road Southeast. The hospital can still be accessed through Belleview Avenue Southeast, a hospital spokesman said.

“We will find alternate ways to get there but our response times could be delayed a bit,” said Bradbury, the Roanoke Fire-EMS spokeswoman.

Employees of a Berglund car dealership scurried about Thursday, moving vehicles out of the way of water that rushed between U.S. 220 and Franklin Avenue, and was overtaking the parking lot. An employee said one person driving by had mistaken the torrent for the Roanoke River.

At the Tanglewood Mall, a visitor from Floyd parked his car about 12:30 p.m. and went inside, he said. When he came out about a half hour later, water had reached the door handle.

Staff writers Andrew Adkins, Jacob Demmitt, Robby Korth, Tonia Moxley, Kevin Myatt and Alicia Petska contributed to this report.

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John Boyer

John Boyer, the RTD's staff meteorologist

John Boyer is the first staff meteorologist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the RTD newsroom in November 2016 after covering severe weather on television in Tulsa, Okla.

As a native of the Roanoke area, the region’s heavy snowstorms started his fascination with Virginia’s changing weather.

Boyer earned his degree in meteorology from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He is a member of the American Meteorological Society and earned their Certified Broadcast Meteorologist seal in 2012.

Look for his stories in the RTD and on Richmond.com, along with videos and forecast updates for major weather events in our area.

Email him your story ideas and weather tips.

Thursday Weatherline

Richmond area gets 1 to 2 inches of rain

Richmond International Airport saw 1.3 inches of rain on Wednesday, the wettest day there since July 7. The rainfall also broke the record for Oct. 16. More rain fell in nine hours than in the previous 54 days (dating to Aug. 23). Metro-area totals ranged from 1 to 2 inches.

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