On Aug. 30, a tropical deluge called Gaston slammed into Richmond's Shockoe Bottom, the historic riverside entertainment quarter. Fourteen inches of rain fell in five hours on the Shockoe Valley watershed and, after the storm drainage system was overwhelmed, most of it converged on Shockoe Bottom's 17th and Main streets, the city's lowest point on the downtown side of the James River. SUVs bobbed like rubber ducks, buildings sagged and Richmonders raced for their lives. Two lost them at Gillies Creek, a mile east.
When the waters receded, Shockoe Bottom residents and workers crept back to a catastrophe. Cars were stacked roof-to-roof. The neighborhood's beloved farmers market was swamped. Two buildings across from the newly restored train station were demolished, battered into rubble by the cars and trucks carried along in the flood. Most storefronts in the stricken blocks had windows blown away and their innards disgorged into the streets.
Diners fill the second floor of Cafe Gutenberg.
(Jay Paul For The Washington Post)
"It was like nothing I could have ever imagined, an utter, utter disaster area," recalls Erika Gay, head of the River District Alliance, a Shockoe merchants' association. "They're calling it a 2,500-year storm. I don't think anyone who saw it that morning could have expected it to come back anytime soon."
And yet the neighborhood has come back, mostly. Three months later -- after miles of streets have been scraped of mud, dozens of basements scoured and aired, tons of debris trucked away and a number of federal agencies wrestled with -- Shockoe Bottom is ready for visitors. On a recent fall day, there were more patrons than construction workers on 17th, 18th and Main streets. Cafe Gutenberg's second-floor dining room was crowded, although the heavily slimed ground floor was still under renovation. (Displaced staff rushed to help the cleanup, says the cafe's Jen Clayton. "People came in even before they knew they would get paid for it.") The venerable farmers market rallied in time to host its annual Brunswick Stew Festival last month. Shockoe Bottom, named for a Native American word meaning "flat rock" and the place where canal boats plying the James used to turn around, had survived the flood.
"People are coming back down," says Janene Charbeneau of the Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They're beginning to realize that it's coming back."
Of course, it's not hard to see evidence of the ongoing reconstruction. At least seven restaurants are still too ruined to open, including Havana '59, the popular 17th Street mojito bar where water climbed 13 feet up the dining room wall. Expected to reopen in March, it and two neighbors (Bottom's Up Pizza and River City Diner, both expected back in January) are the biggest restaurant draws in the district, according to Gay.
"With those dark, we certainly aren't seeing the number of people coming to the Bottom that we saw before," says Gay. "But the rest that are open are seeing good crowds."
Gay's group has led a relief effort that has raised $350,000 through donations, fundraisers and a November concert in the Bottom featuring Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. The money has gone to aid local rebuilding and pay for radio and newspaper ads telling people -- even local people -- the Bottom is back in business.
One landmark that escaped damage altogether was the city's recently, and gorgeously, refurbished train depot. Since last December, for the first time in decades, Main Street Station has been depositing passengers right in the heart of town -- in Shockoe Bottom, within a whistle blast of the farmers market. With daily trains from Union Station, it's a time-bending way for Washingtonians to begin a carless weekend in the state capital. Disembarking amid the polished brass fittings and faux-marble columns, it's easy to imagine that it's 1904, except that a century ago, the trains may have run faster and more often.
Regulars gripe that the 7:30 a.m. to Richmond is chronically late pulling out of Washington. Ours left at 7:52. The queue of traffic inching past the Jefferson Memorial minutes later was a reminder that highways also lag. Skirting odious I-95, the train glided decorously along the Potomac, with occasional speed. At Staples Mill Station, the bland suburban Richmond stop, the train lost a brake hose. Repaired, it crawled downtown, arriving close to noon, nearly two hours late.