As an actor at Swift Creek Mill Theatre in the mid-1970s, Tom Width remembers lugging sandbags out once or twice a year as a precaution when the local forecast called for heavy rain.
In the late afternoon on Saturday until the early hours of Sunday, Width’s anxiety mounted as nearly 12 feet of water streamed into the theater’s basement and upstairs dining room.
“It was truly a flash flood. All I could do was watch and protect the building as best as I could,” said Width, now the theater’s artistic director, during an interview Monday.
Floors buckled under mud and debris; chairs in the basement are stuck in a chandelier.
Outside, two large shipping containers, weighing about 20 tons each, floated away. One, now on its side, houses the set for the annual “Drifty the Snowman” holiday children’s show. The other, filled with sets for children’s shows, banged into the theater’s back building, which houses its rehearsal space and workshop and — now — about 6 inches of mud.
In his 44 years with the theater, Width can only recall water creeping into the dining room once. Of the small floods endured over the past four decades, none reached the magnitude of this weekend.
Chesterfield County Administrator Joe Casey declared a local emergency on Saturday after nearly 10 inches of rain fell on parts of the county. Officials evacuated 150 homes downstream from Falling Creek Dam near Hopkins Road on Saturday night, allowing residents to re-enter their homes Sunday afternoon.
Early Monday, officials directed county residents to conserve water after two of the county’s water sources — the Addison-Evans Water Treatment Plant and Richmond’s Jahnke Road pump station — were temporarily cut off due to flooding. County officials said Monday afternoon that Jahnke Road should be back up and running in a matter of days; Addison-Evans could take weeks or months.
Not far from the Jahnke Road station, Greenvale Drive resident George Gitchell, who has lived in his South Richmond home for a decade, wound up with a waterfront property after Saturday’s rain.
Gitchell’s home, which is in a Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplain, has seen its share of slight flooding over the years. His side yard floods occasionally with heavy rains, and his backyard fence post could sometimes see an inch of water overflow.
“What used to be a bad flood would be 1 inch [of water]; turned into 5 feet,” Gitchell said in an interview Monday.
Based on FEMA maps, Gitchell estimated Saturday’s flooding reached a 500-year floodplain, which has a 0.2% chance of happening. A creek sits about 300 feet from his home.
His garage sustained the most damage, submerged in 4 feet of water with everything coated in a fine, red-clay mixture. He found his refrigerator floating; an air compressor ripped off the wall; and his tool chest, complete with woodworking, welding and power tools, submerged. Family heirlooms, included a sleigh bed and a vanity dresser, were destroyed.
Gitchell estimates he will have lost nearly $20,000 in things from his garage. Required to have FEMA flood insurance, he had calls out to both the agency and his regular homeowners insurance Monday. Until then, Gitchell continued to clean up his garage. By Monday morning, he’d already made three trips to the dump.
Width, meanwhile, said the damage to Swift Creek Mill Theatre will put it back tens of thousands of dollars. As of Monday morning, its power and gas were still shut off.
The theater has been closed since March due to COVID-19 and so, “money is very tight and to have this added to it creates a lot of urgency for the need of funding,” Width said.
As of 9 p.m., an online fundraiser had brought in more than $7,000 of the theater’s $20,000 request.