When the James River crested at about 22 feet above flood stage between 1 and 2 p.m. here, traffic lights were just a few inches above the rushing brown waters in Shockoe Bottom, one of the city's oldest commercial sections.
Wayne Yates considered his shop in the redeveloped area just down Main Street from the state capitol in the past tense. "I had a welding shop," he said as he surveyed his Richmond Welding and Liberty Press, submerged in water to within about a foot of the roof.
Yates, who said the city could keep businesses closed indefinitely while cleanup efforts take place, took the city administration to task for concentrating its redevelopment efforts on new buildings and downtown markets while ignoring the flooding problems that periodically affect Shockoe Bottom, which is struggling to emerge from years of neglect.
The flooding in Shockoe Bottom delayed the grand opening of Main Street Station, a renovated railway terminal with 40 specialty shops.
Like many buildings in the low-lying district, the station's first floor was under water. Other businesses were hit even harder.
The overflowing James caused damage estimated at $100 million, flooding an 80-block low-lying area near downtown and a 30-mile stretch along the river.
The city's sewage treatment plant flooded and after it was shut down Wednesday raw sewage poured into the river, assuring a long and messy cleanup.
Five tanks holding up to one million gallons of fuel each were floating in a confined area near the city's center yesterday, and at about 3 p.m. Environmental Protection Agency officials were called in by City Manager Manuel Deese when one began leaking.
Traffic slowed to a tortoise's pace as three bridges and dozens of roads leading into Richmond were closed, including a 15-mile stretch of I-95 south of Richmond.
"We were expecting the worst here. We didn't get as much as we had expected," said Michael LaCivita, spokesman for the State Department of Emergency Services.
Tonight the department estimated damage in the Richmond area would be at least $100 million.
"Sunday it should be back to normal and by Saturday the cleanup should begin," said Deese.
LaCivita said no deaths or injuries resulting from the flooding were reported, and there was just one arrest -- of a man canoeing on the river in violation of a city ordinance. Police said there was no looting; but, as a precaution, many of the 586 members of the National Guard stood watch throughout the flooded areas.
At lunchtime today, hundreds of state employes and other curious onlookers gathered around Shockhoe Bottom. Large crowds also swarmed along the bank on both sides of the still-open Lee Bridge, craning their necks and snapping photos of the churning water.
"It's hard to believe the weather's so nice," said Richmond lawyer Patrick B. Kelly. "I saw it on TV. I heard it on the radio. But you almost have to be here to believe it."
As the crowds gaped, the river seemed to speed up, brown foamy peaks swelling and collapsing like tiny volcanoes, a muddy mountain range of water rushing eastward in fast motion. Melissa Messick aimed a Panasonic video camera toward the water. "It's totally incredible -- nature. Usually, you can see rocks everywhere. It looks like big creeks running through the rocks."
Officials estimated that the water level would drop five feet every 12 hours and level out at nine feet on Sunday morning. As the waters began to recede yesterday, maintenance workers dismantled the sandbag barrier around State Consolidated Laboratories, Virginia's morgue and forensic labs.
"The waters stopped 40 feet from the chilling system this time," said John M. Wheeler, maintenance supervisor. "We're 100 percent lucky. In '72 we had bodies floating and everything."