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Could Richmond’s floodwall handle 50 inches of rain? The answer…

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RICHMOND, Va. -- When it comes to floods, Richmond has seen some doozies. Its old port neighborhoods in Shockoe Bottom have been underwater repeatedly.

But if the historic and disastrous 50 inches of rain that fell on South Texas fell here,  what would that look like?

Would our floodwall be able to handle it?

Experts say that's a tough question to answer. It would depend on how wide an area the rain fell, and how quickly.

But we can get some idea by remembering some of Richmond's most devastating floods.

Way before hurricanes had proper names, we had the flood of 1771 that killed 150 in our area as the James climbed 45 feet above normal.

The record indicates there were 10 to 12 days of rain in the Blue Ridge Mountains and points east, but it's hard to say how many inches that would equal.

The next highest recorded flood came with Hurricane Agnes in June 1972, when 16 inches of rain fell in a day and a half.

Still, that's just one-third of the amount that got dumped in South Texas since late Friday night.

Hurricane Juan in 1985 hit Central Virginia with maybe 8 inches, and look at the epic mess that made.

And 13 years ago today, August 30, 2004, tropical storm Gaston dumped 11 inches of rain on Richmond in just eight hours and 14 inches altogether.

In 1969, Hurricane Camille dropped about 10 or so inches of rain locally,  but more than twice as much in some spots in our watershed in the mountains.

But 50 inches of rain?

Nobody was thinking about that when President Ronald Reagan signed the project bill for our $143 million dollar floodwall, which was supposed to protect us from the likes of the 1771 monster and cluster of damaging hurricanes from '69 to '85.

We've had some pretty serious storms since the roughly 3 mile-long floodwall (4,277 feet on the north side of the river and 13,046 feet on the other bank) was completed 23 years ago.

But the mighty concrete wall with sliding steel doors has yet to be used.

We might consider it a very expensive good luck charm. Build it and the hurricanes and other monster storms will stay away (knock on wood).

But the experts I spoke with told me a storm that dropped 50 inches of rain here and in the mountains would overwhelm the floodwall.

Robert Steidel, Richmond's Director of Public Utilities, said it's difficult to imagine anything "built by man" containing that torrent racing through the steep banks of the James.

But unlike Houston, which is so low and close to the Gulf of Mexico the ditches are actually tidal south of town, Richmond has plenty of high land way above the river.

But let's hope we never find out what a rain like Harvey's would do here.

And best to all in south Texas who are dealing with it.

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