The worst of Hurricane Michael’s remnants were supposed to track south of tiny Charlotte County in southern Virginia, but a desperate 911 call Thursday night told a different story: A car had been washed away in a torrential flash flood.
When sheriff’s deputies raced to the scene on Mount Harmony Road after 11 p.m., county administrator Daniel Witt said they heard the screams of a 17-year-old boy clinging to a guardrail.
The sheriff’s deputies and some bystanders linked arms and waded into the raging water, before tossing the teen a rope. He was pulled to safety, but his father and grandmother were swept away. The man’s body has been recovered, but the woman remains missing.
Frightening scenes played out across a wide swath of southern and central Virginia Thursday, as the storm caught many in the commonwealth off guard with its ferocity. Officials said the storm left one missing and five dead — out of a nationwide death toll of at least 15 from the storm that slammed the Florida panhandle with 155 mph winds on Wednesday.
The storm knocked out power to 565,000 people at the height, and it flooded or closed 1,200 roads. There were five suspected tornadoes across the state.
“We were just expecting three or four inches of rain, but it tracked north and just slammed us,” Witt said. “It caught us by surprise.”
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who declared a state of emergency before the rain began, defended the state’s handling of the storm at a Friday news conference, saying Virginia was well prepared.
“I think there was plenty of warning,” Northam (D) said. “We prepare for the worst and hope for the best. We’ve seen over the history of these storms that they are unpredictable.”
The storm cut a path from the southwest part of the state to the Hampton Roads area, lashing communities with four to eight inches of rain and winds that topped out at above 75 mph. The brunt came between Thursday evening and the early hours of Friday morning.
Swollen streams sloshed onto roads , took the lives of four people, while a firefighter responding to an accident was hit and killed by a driver on a rain-slicked highway in Hanover County. A state police helicopter rescued two people from the roof of a vehicle that was trapped by rising floodwaters on a Nottoway County bridge Friday.
Alan Gregory was working at the offices of Supply Resources in downtown Danville, along the North Carolina border, when rain began pounding the area and water started rushing through the front door. Within 30 minutes, rainwater rose four feet into the lobby, soaking the floors and sending mud and sludge into building.
“It was pretty rough around our office,” said Gregory, a purchasing manager for the packaging distribution company. “There’s mud all around town. The lobby has been trashed.”
The National Guard was deployed to Danville, and the state opened two emergency shelters there and in Salem, which sheltered about 80 people who were forced from their homes, state officials said.
A group of about 40 Danville residents were trapped in their neighborhood because a road had washed out.
Danville Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator David Eagle said the blow from Michael was “the most destructive damage” he has seen in his 24-year career. A rush of water quickly turned streets into lakes and overwhelmed the drainage system so much that gushing floods pushed manhole covers about a foot into the air.
“When we had the worst problem was later yesterday afternoon, when the storm stalled kind of right over Danville and we got seven-plus inches of rain in about 90 minutes,” Eagle said.
The 30.5-inch swell of the Dan River, which runs through the city, is the highest on record, Eagle said.
Photos from local news stations showed the Mount Carmel Baptist Church on Water Street completely destroyed. A redbrick wall completely collapsed into the muddy earth below, exposing the church like a dollhouse.
The city had already been soaked by rains from Hurricane Florence last month, and the downpour from Michael made things worse for the community that has already had problems with drainage and flooding.
The city suffered two fatalities. William Lynn Tanksley, 53, was swept from his vehicle during flash flooding at around 5 p.m. Thursday. Jennifer Bjarnesen Mitchell, 60, drowned when her vehicle was submerged by floodwaters around 10:20 p.m. Thursday.
In Charlotte County, Witt said one rain gauge measured more than nine inches of rain, while a firehouse in the town of Drake’s Branch was no longer habitable because of severe flooding. On Friday, he said phone service was out in much of the county and 90 percent of its residents did not have power.
Witt said a firetruck responding to an emergency Thursday night was crushed by a falling tree. No firefighters were injured. One man was swept into a swollen creek, where he remained until rescuers heard his pleas and plucked him out on Friday morning.
Two deaths were reported in the central part of the state.
In Pittsylvania County, Virginia State Police said James E. King Jr., 45, of Dry Fork, Va., was swept away from his vehicle Thursday afternoon when he was caught in a flash flood.
A sheriff’s deputy and a resident tried to rescue him, but police said the “floodwaters were too deep and too swift” for them to reach him. His body was found about 10:40 p.m.
And in the same county, three firefighters also had to be rescued from a boat that capsized as they were trying to rescue people from rising waters on a bridge.
In Hanover County, a firefighter — who was later identified as Lt. Brad Clark — was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer. Two other firefighters were seriously injured as they tried to help with another crash on Interstate 295. The driver of the tractor-trailer also suffered serious injuries.
Officials with the Hanover County Fire Department said the crash happened about 9 p.m. when Clark was out with a crew helping after two vehicles crashed along southbound I-295 outside Mechanicsville. A tractor-trailer headed south on the interstate then struck the fire crew, officials said.
State emergency officials said the five suspected tornadoes are believed to have hit Amelia, New Kent, Pittsylvania, Gloucester and Halifax counties.
By Friday afternoon, the sun was out, the waters started to recede in many areas, and the cleanup had begun. A Dominion Energy official said the vast majority of Virginia residents should have their power restored by Monday.
Virginia Department of Emergency Management Director Jeffrey D. Stern said full recovery would take several days or possibly longer. He said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was expected to assess damage of affected areas over the next week or so.
In the Washington area, Michael’s wrath was more muted. Residents awoke Friday to downed trees and wires, plus high water on some roads. Some schools systems in the region delayed their openings.
Jason Samenow, chief meteorologist for The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, said the amount of rain that fell with Michael was in line with forecasts, but the winds packed more of a punch than anticipated. That may have caught some off guard.
“It was almost as if it was gaining strength as it approached the coast,” Samenow said. “Also when the ground is saturated like it is, the effect is like the storm is passing over the ocean and it keeps its strength.”