RICHMOND, Va. – An area of about 20 blocks of downtown Richmond was roped off and was declared uninhabitable Tuesday after the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston (search) flooded the city and other parts of central Virginia with a foot or more of rain. At least five people were killed.
The area included most of the city's historic and low-lying Shockoe Bottom area, known for bars and restaurants.
Elsewhere, Hurricane Frances (search) grew to a Category 4 storm with 135 mph wind Tuesday as it headed past Puerto Rico on a course that could bring it ashore in hard-hit Florida or somewhere else in the Southeast this weekend, the National Hurricane Center (search) said. A hurricane warning was issued for the southeastern Bahamas.
A brick building of at least two stories had collapsed in the Shockoe Bottom area, and several dozen buildings had extensive water damage after the rain that fell Monday afternoon and evening flooded the area as much as 10 feet deep, Mayor Rudolph McCollum said Tuesday. In places, rushing water floated cars and trucks and smashed them into buildings.
City officials said the damage would easily be in the millions of dollars but said it was too early to provide an estimate.
"It's like something you've never seen before," said City Manager Calvin D. Jamison.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (search) declared a state of emergency, making state resources available and putting the National Guard on standby, and toured the area on Tuesday.
Nearly 66,000 customers of Dominion Virginia Power still had no electricity Tuesday, mostly in the Richmond area. Many roads were still closed by high water.
Gaston surprised meteorologists, who had expected the storm to move through more quickly as it came north from the Carolinas and predicted no more than four inches of rain. Downtown Richmond got up to 12 inches of rain Monday afternoon and evening and suburban King William County measured 14, the National Weather Service (search) said.
The flooding marooned some people in Shockoe Bottom.
"It looks like rapids outside our building," said Nick Baughan, who was stranded with about 20 other people on the second floor of the Bottoms Up pizza restaurant. "All of our cars have floated away."
Warner said five people had died. Richmond police spokeswoman Cynthia Price said two of them died in a creek in eastern Richmond. In nearby Chesterfield County, rescuers pulled a woman's body from a submerged car early Tuesday, county public affairs officer Dave Goode said. Goode said county police and firefighters rescued about 40 people during the night.
Matthew Marsili was trying to drive home through the flooded streets Monday evening when "all of this water came rushing down the hill all at once. ... It half-submerged a bus in the middle of the intersection that was filled with people and cars started floating down the road."
With Gaston centered over the Atlantic early Tuesday, about 75 miles south-southeast of Atlantic City, N.J., emergency officials and meteorologists were looking toward the western Atlantic, where Hurricane Frances was roaring along a path paralleling Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, the island holding Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Hurricane forecasters said the course of Frances remained too difficult to determine, since it was at least five days from the U.S. mainland. Forecasts put Frances anywhere from Cuba to the Carolina coast by the end of the week, but the main track would send it across Florida, crossing the devastating path Hurricane Charley cut across the state less than three weeks ago.
With rain from hurricanes Alex and Charley and the remnants of Bonnie — all during August — rainfall in parts of the Southeast already is several inches above normal for the month.
"If you throw another hurricane into the mix, there could be a lot of problems," said Mike Strickler, a National Weather Service forecaster in Raleigh, N.C.
At 11 a.m. EDT, Frances was centered about 175 miles northeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was moving west at about 15 mph. Tropical storm warnings were in effect for parts of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands.