Washed Away: The 1985 Flood

The James River deluged  a nearby town in 1985.
The James River deluged a nearby town in 1985.

Betty Gusler was waiting tables at the Oasis Restaurant. It was a Williamson Road mainstay most notable for its sign–two stories tall with neon palms. The lunchtime crowd was gone and the dinner crowd hadn’t yet arrived when she received a call. It was around 3:00 on November 4, 1985. Her sister was on the line.

“She told me that she didn’t want to upset me,” Betty recently explained to The Roanoke Times, “Momma and Steven and Samantha were missing.”

Her mother Sadie often cared for Steven, Betty’s ten-year-old, an only child. On November 4, Sadie heard that schools were letting out on account of the rising rivers. Steven could have stayed at school for a few hours more, but his grandmother wouldn’t have it. He was close–about a mile away from her north Roanoke home–so she put his toddler cousin Samantha into her Oldsmobile and headed into the downpour.

The rain had started days before. A disorganized weather system, it bounced between Louisiana’s coast and the Gulf of Mexico, loosing and gaining steam in cycles. At its peak, it was called Hurricane Juan and spurred 85 mph winds. By November 1, the storm was over land and weakened. It looked like it would bring a mid-autumn soaking to the Appalachians but nothing more.

Then there was a meteorological twist; moisture from Juan unexpectedly combined with another system. This new, powerful storm, a cyclone, delivered rainfall that was measured in the double-digits.

Rivers swelled across four states, including the one that Sadie crossed after picking Steven up from school. The Roanoke Times said that Sadie drove into the rising waters. Apparently her car stopped. She took the children from their seats and tried to escape, but the current was too strong. It pulled her grand babies from her arms and washed them all downstream.

“I was out of there,” Betty said. When she got the alarming phone call, she left her job. Her boyfriend, Barry Simmons, drove them in his tow truck to the spot where her mother’s car was found. Rescuers were on the scene.

Soon after Betty and Barry arrived, her niece was spotted. Samantha was only three years old but had somehow survived the torrent. She landed on an island of high ground. Water flowed on all sides but she was safe. A helicopter carried her away.

“After they found Samantha, they were looking for a while,” Betty said, “Then they called the search off.”

Darkness impeded the search party but not Betty’s brother. He grabbed a flashlight and went looking for their mother. The authorities followed him. Within an hour, Sadie’s body was found.

Betty faced the loss of her mother while holding out hope for her son. He was out there somewhere, but the relentless storm and charging waters made it impossible to continue. Everyone was sent home.

On the morning of November 5th, the waters began to recede. By first light, relatives and authorities were back on the emerging creek banks. The search resumed, but Betty was overwhelmed. She couldn’t go back. She waited at her mother’s house for word on Steven.

“It seemed like an eternity before them cars come back,” she says. “When Barry come back, I said, ‘Did you find him,’ and he shook his head ‘yeah.’ I said, ‘Is he alive,’ and he shook his head ‘no.’”

Watch this video of Betty. She sounds like a woman who has told this horrific story a thousand times. Still, the emotions overtake her when she says, “I think the death of a child is the worst thing that you can go through, to have to bury your child…”

A cow carcass entangled beneath the Cheat River Bridge. Photograph by John Warner, courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives.

Twenty-five years later, the flood still haunts families across our region. More than 50 people were killed in Virginia and West Virginia. The Cheat River, the Greenbrier River, the South branch of the Potomac River, the Roanoke River, the Little Kanawha River–they all flooded their banks. They carried people off. They drowned livestock. They covered bridges, tearing some apart. Houses went too, along with businesses, sheds, topsoil, boulders, and machinery of all sizes. In a rushing torrent, water swept up the earth and everything resting on it.

This month, news outlets are reporting on the flood’s lasting impact. The Roanoke Times has a special section full of photos, video testimonials, and original articles from 1985. The Charleston Gazette has a story and slideshow with powerful images.

It’s a fitting time to remember the flood’s victims. As we’re counting our blessings, I hope we all send prayers, warm thoughts, hope–whatever goodness we believe in–toward those who saw their loved ones and livelihoods washed away.

If you were in the area in 1985, you no doubt remember the flood. Please take a minute to share your story with us.

3 Comments

  • your mom

    Do you remember the morning after the flood waters receded and you, your brother and I went down town Roanoke, headed to the dr’s. office for Mike to get his allergy shot? Mud was deep on all walks and streets and shop keepers were busy shoveling, sweeping, and spraying mud away w/ water hoses from inside and outside their businesses, all along looking sovery overwhelmed, tired and weary. My mother and dad lost a friend in the floods that was attempting to get home to her family and drowned in her pick up truck.
    The Gusler lady you referred to was one of Brenda’s cousins.
    Good job, Mark!

  • Uncle

    Luckily my direct memories aren’t so bad. I remember my Mom and Dad were having the sewer lateral under the front yard replaced when all the rain hit that morning and going to check on them and seeing a backhoe on its side in the collapsed ditch. I also remember going back to work after the water receded and seeing the mud line at about 18 feet above the floor on the warehouse and furniture and trash hanging from the rafters. When I think of the public images I always think of the photo of the old Victory Stadium under water. Several years later when I went to work for 911 we used tapes of several of those rescues in training.

  • Demanda

    My memories of the floor are all positive. I was 10 and don’t think that I even knew that anyone had died in the flood, or that other areas had suffered flooding outside of Roanoke. I remembering being out of school for a long time, and our entire street lost power for a few days. No one could cook on our electric stoves and food was spoiling quickly, so all the neighbors would take food over to Mr. Saunders house and we would grill out together- these hodge podge communal meals. Mr. Saunders would light a fire outside each night and we would all hang out together. Throughout jr high and even into high school if some poor soul came to school with high water pants on, some smart aleck would snidely chide “Dude, the flood was in ’85″

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