Rain from Tropical Storm Gaston on Monday night sent a 10-foot wall of water rushing through the low-lying neighborhood that had become the center of an urban revival, tossing cars into buildings, trapping residents in their homes and wrecking trendy restaurants and bars.
The storm also inundated the suburbs near the state capital, leaving five people dead in flooding that also closed numerous streets and knocked out power to 87,000 homes and businesses.
City and state officials who evaluated the damage after the water receded Tuesday said the modern flood wall that protects Shockoe Bottom, the historic home of the tobacco industry, worked flawlessly to keep the James River from overflowing its banks as it had on Oct. 1, 1870, and Aug. 22, 1969.
But this time, the water came not from the river but from the sky. More than a foot of rain fell in six hours, and with no place else to go, it flowed at great speed down 17th Street and onto Main Street, near the city's renovated train station, until it enveloped the farmer's market and the other businesses.
Adam Johnson, 24, who works for a property management firm, was wading along the first-floor hallway of one of his company's apartment buildings when the storm pushed the front door open.
"The water went from waist-high to chin-high in 10 seconds," he said. "It was scary. Like in a movie where the hallway fills up with water. I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I thought, 'This is it. Don't let me die.' "
More than a dozen people were trapped in a city bus for several hours with floodwater blocking their escape.
City officials said rescue crews rappelled from Interstate 95 overpasses, part of an effort that plucked about 40 people from the water.
Joey Williams, 26, said he returned from a trip Monday night to find his first-floor apartment filled with water to the ceiling.
"I had no clue what was going on," he said Tuesday as he tried to get to his apartment. "People were walking around in disbelief. Cars on top of each other. It was horrible."
Floodwater had receded by Tuesday morning when Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) took a walking tour of the 25-square-block area near downtown Richmond. But in the water's wake, cars were stacked on top of each other, streets were coated with thick layers of mud, power lines were on the ground and storefronts were damaged or destroyed.
Warner and local officials said the storm dropped 10 to 14 inches of rain where one to four had been predicted. Richmond Mayor Rudy McCollum called the storm "totally unexpected."
National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Rusnak said forecasters do not yet understand why the remnants of a rapidly weakening tropical depression dropped so much rain on Richmond.
"We're trying to figure that out. I don't know if there's a right answer," he said.
Rusnak said the storm shifted a bit more to the east than forecasters had expected, which might have allowed the storm to gather strength.
"It started pulling in and sucking in more Atlantic moisture," Rusnak said. "As it began to deepen, it just threw more water over the same area."
Warner declared a state of emergency Monday night for the hardest-hit areas of the state and said at a news conference that he would seek a federal designation as well so that property owners can receive federal aid.
He said that the victims were two people in Richmond, two in Hanover County and one in Chesterfield County. Officials said one person was believed to still be missing.
Warner called it "a remarkable blessing" that more people were not killed.
Two of the deaths occurred at swollen Gillies Creek in Richmond, Richmond police spokeswoman Cynthia Goode said. And in Chesterfield County, a suburb south of Richmond, county police said scuba divers found a late-model Toyota Avalon submerged and recovered a body from it.
Police blocked residents and business owners from returning to Shockoe Bottom, as surveyors conducted a building-by-building assessment of structural damage.
One building on Main Street had collapsed onto three or four cars. Nearby, inside Cafe Gutenberg, a bookstore and Internet cafe, broken chairs and tables covered with mud and wet books were strewn around.
As residents and property owners watched, surveyors were slapping red signs on many of the buildings reading: "Public Notice. Condemned. No Trespassing."
For years, Shockoe Bottom was home to dozens of tobacco warehouses. In recent years, the area has become a mix of apartments, restaurants, nightclubs and small businesses. Vacant warehouses have been turned into upscale apartments and condominiums for young professionals. And the bars and clubs have turned the area into the city's main nightspot.
The storm also flooded other parts of the Richmond area and forced officials to close 18 primary roads and 161 secondary roads. CSX and Norfolk Southern, which operate the train tracks in the area, called damage significant and said it could halt passenger and freight rail until at least Friday. Amtrak canceled many trains through Richmond.
The Powhite Parkway, a major toll road that carries about 100,000 commuters each day, was closed Tuesday morning because the toll collection lanes were clogged with mud and debris.
Monday night in Chesterfield County, authorities had ordered evacuations from homes, apartment complexes and businesses downstream of Falling Creek Dam as water from the reservoir flowed over and around the dam. About 475 people spent the night at a makeshift shelter at Meadowbrook High School.