RICHMOND, Va. — The rain-swollen James River surged over its banks into the historic state capital Saturday, flooding 24 square blocks of waterfront restaurants, shops and warehouses with up to six feet of muddy water.
The National Guard, called out Friday under a state of emergency, directed traffic around more than 50 streets closed by the flooding and cordoned off swamped areas to keep out thieves who might try to loot businesses after dark.
The James rose more than 15 1/2 feet above flood stage Saturday evening and was expected to crest about a foot higher during the night. Flood stage is reached when a river leaves its banks.
City Manager Robert Bobb said that officials were "most concerned with any potential looting that could occur within the area" after dark but that "police are prepared to handle that type of potential situation."
About 12 square blocks of businesses on either side of the river lay under two to six feet of muddy water, officials said. An undeveloped area of roughly 15 square blocks, including parkland, also was inundated, and a waste water treatment plant was temporarily shut.
Dan Glenn, a spokesman for the city's Bureau of Traffic Engineering, said floodwaters lapped against a handful of secluded homes near the river.
"Most of these homes we're talking about, the people are used to it," Glenn said. "They'll be back in their homes, back to normal, in a week or 10 days. They've been out for a day or two. Some of their homes are on stilts and suffer only mildly from the flood."
City officials declared a state of emergency Friday, and Gov. Gerald L. Baliles summoned 350 National Guard troops into action. The Guard stood by with two helicopters and four motorized rubber boats to be used in the event of rescues or evacuations.
Merchants in the city's waterfront commercial district had moved merchandise to higher ground and sandbagged their shops against the rising water, which spilled into streets within view of the state Capitol.
Many warehouses, including some belonging to tobacco giant Philip Morris USA, were cleared out and their doors left open to allow floodwaters to run out.
The James was engorged by days of heavy rains that caused flooding across Virginia, killing a 7-year-old boy Wednesday and sweeping away an elderly woman who is missing and presumed drowned.
In Scottsville, about 60 miles upstream from Richmond, the James crested at more than seven feet above flood stage, unleashing muddy waters that submerged gasoline pumps and crept up to the windows of many buildings. By early Saturday, the high water had receded to about five feet above flood stage.
The latest flood in Richmond was not expected to be as bad as the November, 1985, flooding that killed at least 10 people in western and central Virginia and caused $100 million in damages.
Workers sandbagged a city pumping station that became an island in high water. City officials said the pumps still were operating but were fighting a losing battle against the unremitting floodwaters.
The inundated portions of Richmond included a 12-block area called Shockoe Bottom. Late Friday afternoon, city officials shut off gas service to Shockoe Slip, a low-lying strip of restaurants and shops just above Shockoe Bottom.
One merchant continued a brisk trade in vegetables despite the rising water. "When they tell me to go, I'll be gone in five minutes," George Bogans said.