Time has not healed all wounds.
Within weeks of the five-year anniversary of a flood that ruined dozens of businesses in Shockoe Bottom, several businesses filed a lawsuit against the City of Richmond.
Those proprietors and property owners aren’t blaming Mother Nature for the havoc caused on that rainy August day in 2004, but rather the city for failing to maintain and inspect flood control systems in the Bottom.
The storm flooded properties in the historic neighborhood and caused millions of dollars in property damage. Businesses closed for months, and some never reopened.
The plaintiffs are seeking $25 million in compensatory damages, plus $350,000 for each plaintiff named in the suit, which was filed in Richmond Circuit Court.
“All of these plaintiffs lost a great deal of money not only in property damage, but also in lost profit,” said Tommy Baer, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs from the firm of Canfield Baer. “That’s what the dollar figure is based upon.”
Since Gaston, the city has undertaken some improvements to the sewer system underneath Shockoe Bottom, including a $3.7 million project to add 93 curb drains and make other underground improvements — all completed by February 2008. The city recently instituted a wastewater utility fee to fund maintenance of drainage systems citywide.
Still, Baer said the plaintiffs are not resting easy, even with further improvements in the works.
“They feel the flood control measures have not been addressed and that they remain vulnerable to flooding again,” said Baer. “All of them have rebuilt and invested a lot of money to rebuilding Shockoe, and if there is another severe storm not even as great as Gaston they could be injured again rather extensively.”
Baer said he started putting the case together not long after the storm. The research and documentation have caused a long delay, and Baer said it will likely be next year before a trial takes place.
City spokesman Michael Wallace said the city was not yet aware of the suit and typically does not comment on pending litigation.
“At this time the city has not been served by a lawsuit of that nature,” Wallace said.
Angela Fountain, spokesperson for the Department of Public Utilities, said the department was also unaware of the suit and did not have a statement at this time.
The suit alleges that an unopened control gate, a pumping station without electrical power and retention basins that were not emptied before the storm are among the many problems with the sewer system that contributed to the flood. All should have been corrected by the city long before the first drops of Gaston fell upon Richmond, according to the complaint.
Michael Ripp, once the owner of Havana ’59, City Bar and Chop House, and O’Brien’s Irish Pub, said the disaster was not the rainfall from Gaston, but the city’s handling of the infrastructure.
“I was very irritated that the city did nothing to correct the problems that they were supposed to have corrected and continue to keep clean,” Ripp said.
Other plaintiffs include Bottom’s Up, River City Diner, 17.5 Uncommon Café, Main Street Realty, Historic Housing, and SWA Construction. Kathy Emerson, former manager of the Farmer’s Market and owner of a building damaged by the flood, is also a plaintiff.
Ripp said that during downpours prior to Gaston the entire alley filled up with water and that on several occasions his basements filled with several inches of water. He said the city would send people to clear the drains, but that the root of the problem was never fixed.
The storm put Ripp’s restaurants completely out of business; they later reopened under different owners. Ripp said he lost at least $1 million as a result of the city’s alleged negligence.
Ripp said he was at Havana ’59 when the rains began falling, and watched the flood run its course from the second floor. By the next morning, the water had receded and Ripp and the others who had been trapped by the rain left.
When he tried returning later to survey the damage, he found the area had been cordoned off by police. It was several days before he could return, and in the meantime the standing water inside had caused even more damage, he said. Water that, he said, could have been pumped out within a few hours.
Like most every business in Shockoe Bottom, Ripp did not have flood insurance.
“Everybody felt safe and protected by the flood wall. No one ever thought you would have an inland flood,” Ripp said.
According to the lawsuit, “The city lured the Plaintiffs and others to Shockoe Bottom with promises of revitalization and economic development. The city issued building and occupancy permits representing that it was safe to build, market, open, and operate businesses there. The city never once advised that there was any kind of major flood risk.”
The story of how Gaston was able to cause so much damage begins more than a century ago.
Before the founding of Richmond, Shockoe Creek ran through what is now the Bottom and drained into the James River. In the 1850s, Shockoe Creek was directed through a series of arches that ran beneath the East-West streets from Marshall to Dock.
Eventually the creek bed began to fill with material, and by 1915 the area was thickly settled and covered in paved streets and alley ways. The series of small arches were like clogged arteries, and the area could no longer handle heavy rains.
In 1926, work began on the Shockoe Creek Arch Sewer, an underground concrete viaduct that extended the length of what was once the creek. The sewer ended with a 17-by-12-foot concrete box, which was equipped with a control gate to keep water from overloading the sewer.
According to later recommendations from the Army Corps of Engineers, the gate should remain open during low river conditions to increase capacity of the collection system.
According to the suit, the gate was not only kept closed, but had rusted shut prior to the storm.
From the suit:
“Water, that would have been absorbed into the sewer system and discharged to the James River and elsewhere through the Shockoe Box, instead surged through the Arch during Gaston. Pressure from the overwhelmed Arch forced water out of the sewers and into the streets, causing a tsunami of sewer/water to cascade down Main Street and inundate Shockoe Bottom.”
The suit goes on to say that the problem was made worse by litter and debris that accumulated inside the system since it was completed in 1927. The suit alleges that the city made no inspections of the box or the arch sewer since it was completed.
Another claim made by the plaintiffs is that an inoperative pumping station could have prevented some of the flooding as well.
The floodwall is equipped with several pumping stations designed to pump water into the James River in the event of a flood. The stations are operated by the city.
One of the stations, the Dock Street Northside Pumping Station, was never activated during the flood because there was no electrical service connected to it, the suit says.
Other contributing factors alleged by the suit:
• The city waited until after 4:30 p.m., after the area was flooded, to open a series of gates designed to direct water into a retention basin or into the river directly.
• The man-made Shockoe Retention Basin, capable of storing 50 million gallons, was full at the time Gaston hit. While the basin takes two days to drain its contents completely into the river, the suit maintains the city had enough warning that a severe tropical storm was on its course to begin the process.
• A natural retention basin running along Interstate 64 had filled with silt and debris after years of neglect. The city was required to maintain the basin as part of a settlement agreement between Richmond Engineering Company, which sued the city in 1968 when a flood destroyed the company’s business.
The suit names a total of 18 damage-causing errors committed by the city. The plaintiffs allege five counts in all: willful and wanton negligence, gross negligence, ordinary negligence, nuisance and trespass.
Not all business owners in the Bottom have signed on to the suit.
David Napier, president of the Shockoe Bottom Neighborhood Association and owner of the Old City Bar, moved into his restaurant space three days before the storm.
“I was in and had the pilot lights lit on the stove, ready to roll,” Napier said.
Napier said it cost him about $250,000 to rebuild after the storm. But he isn’t part of the suit and is not seeking any damages from the city.
He said that when the idea of a lawsuit was first brought up a few years ago he declined to participate.
“One, I was so broke I didn’t have any money because I just lost everything I owned,” Napier said, “Second, I felt it would be hard to pin the blame on any one administration, it is so hard to find one responsible entity.”
Napier said he is thankful for a grant from the city economic development office that covered about 20 percent of the rebuilding cost. He also said that the drainage issues in the Bottom have improved since the storm.
Napier said a low spot in his parking lot would flood during heavy rains, but as of late it hasn’t been a problem.
“I’ve seen rains that would have done it,” he said.
Still, Napier said he thinks if another Gaston comes along there will be water in the streets again, just not as high.
As for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Napier said he understands their reasons.
“Those people mean business, and they have a legitimate reason to do it,” he said. “I just chose not to because I hate living in the past.”
Instead, Napier prefers to focus on the future.
“The city made an investment in the flood wall and invested in the sewer. If they can complete the investment and get some economic development down here, the city will benefit forever.”
Below is a complete list of plaintiffs:
River City Diner
17.5 Uncommon Café
Cary & Shockoe LLC
17th & Shockoe LLC
Market Slip Commercial LP
Railroad Y LP
1705 E. Main Street Association
Jackson Warehouse LP
S&S Construction Inc.
Main Street Realty Inc.
Historic Housing Inc.
Pine Alley Lofts LP
SWA Construction Inc.
Sky Management Inc.
Al Harris is a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to [email protected]