Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Floods by Pat Holzbach

Impact of Water on Shockoe Bottom
Pat Holzbach
Environmental Studies, PHS 100A
Warner Pacific College
June 21, 2011

Impact of Water on Shockoe Bottom
In the early 1600s, Shockoe Bottom, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Richmond, Virginia, was a trading post. Appropriately named, Shockoe Bottom is the lowest point on the north side of the river, with hills on three sides of it. The Shockoe Bottom watershed, a 65-acre sub-basin, is located within the Shockoe Creek watershed, Richmond’s largest at 8,000 acres. (Steindel, Stone, Liang, Cronin, Maisch, 2006) Located on the James River, with Shockoe Creek running through it, it was a prime location for the ship trade. While the James River begins in the Blue Ridge Mountains (part of Earth’s oldest mountain range), and flows to the Chesapeake Bay, Richmond marks the furthest inland point that ships can travel because of the river falls. It was an ideal location for water commerce.
In 1785, George Washington surveyed the area for canals to be built, which further enhanced the area’s importance as a trade center. Warehouses and industrial buildings sprang up along the river banks. As the city grew, in 1850s Shockoe Creek was directed underground, through a series of arches, draining into the James River. (Harris, 2009)
It remained an important trade center until 1865, when, at the end of the Civil War, the area was burned. Buildings crumbled, and business was non-existent, marking the end of an era. In 1880, the canals were sold to the railroads, and the age of railroads and automobiles changed the trajectory of this river-side Shockoe Bottom. (A brief history, 2011)
Then, in the 1960s, the Clean Water Act spurred the clean up of the James River, bringing new life to the neighborhood. Old factories and refurbished warehouses became stylish restaurants, galleries and shops. (A brief history, 2011) Visitors enjoyed walking along the cobblestone streets, with little thought of the antiquated drainage system just below.
The flood of August 2004 brought to light the deterioration of the 150 year-old system.
On Monday, August 30, remnants of Hurricane Gaston, now classified as a tropical storm, dropped 14 inches of water over Shockoe Bottom in just a few hours. (Weber, no date) FEMA reported that water rose from 6 inches to 5 feet in only 20 minutes. (FEMA, 2004)
Receiving the run-off from surrounding hills, flooding in Shockoe Bottom reached 12 feet, causing $20 million in damage, and killing eight people. Everyone, including weather forecasters, was caught by surprise.
Compounding the problem was the existence of the flood wall, completed in 1994 and ranging up to 30 feet in height. (City of Richmond, 2011)
This wall runs along the James River to protect businesses and homes from the overflooding river. This flood wall served as a bowl-like barrier to keep the rainfall from flowing into the river.
In 2009, businesses in Shockoe Bottom sued the City of Richmond for damages and loss of profit, based on their findings below: (Harris, 2009)
• The creek bed of Shockoe Creek, directed underground in the 1850s, had filled with material, and the series of arches had become clogged, and were no longer able to handle heavy rains and disperse them to the James River. In 1926, an underground concrete viaduct replaced the creek bed. At the end of the viaduct was built a large concrete holding area, with a control gate to prevent overloading the sewer system. When the storm came, the gate was shut, and in fact, had rusted shut.
• Water that should have flowed through the viaduct was forced out of the sewers and into the streets, bringing with it much of the litter and debris that had accumulated since it was completed in 1927. The system had not been inspected since it was built.
• The flood wall has several pumping stations designed to pump water back into the James River should a flood occur. One of the pumping stations, the one closest to Shockoe Bottom, was never activated, as it had no electrical service connected to it.
• The Shockoe Retention Basin, a man-made basin with a 50-million-gallon capacity, was full at the time of the downpour. While the full extent of the storm could not have been predicted, knowing that a tropical storm was eminent should have been enough indicator to the City of Richmond to empty the basin.
Between 2004 and 2008, the City of Richmond spent $3.7 million on projects to improve the system: (Petriello, 2010)
• Approximately 100 curb inlets were added or modified (enlarged or re-located), and additional pipes were added.
• Three new gate structures were added to the sewer system, and the key areas of the system at the lowest points were redesigned.
• The Shockoe Retention Basin was restored as a flow equalizer, able to hold millions of gallons of water from Shockoe Bottom. During the restoration, 25,000 cubic yards of sediment and overgrowth from years of neglect were removed.
• An early warning system was installed. (Jones, 2010)
While these improvements are too late for some businesses that never recovered from the flood of 2004, they are a step in right direction to securing the future of one of Richmond’s most historic areas, and helping to assure that the future impact of water on this area is a positive one.

A brief history and present description of the historic district of Shockoe Slip and Bottom in Richmond Virginia. Retrieved June 18, 2011, from
City of Richmond (2011). Flood wall park. Retrieved June 18, 2011, from
FEMA (November 4, 2004). Raising the floor keeps Richmond, Virginia business dry during tropical storm Gaston flood. Retrieved June 18, 2011, from
Harris, Al (August 28, 2009). Shockoe businesses sue city for $31 million. Retrieved June 18, 2011, from
Jones, S. (August 31, 2010) Remembering Gaston. Retrieved June 19, 2011, from,0,785309.story
Petriello, G. (2010). Improvements to Shockoe Bottom for this hurricane season. Retrieved June 18, 2011, from
Steidel, R., Stone, Rb., Liang, L., Cronin, E., Maisch, F., 2006) Downtown shall not flood again. Retrieved June 19, 2011, from
Weber, Ken (no date). “Historic” flood of 2004. Retrieved June 18, 2011, from

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