Washout! Rains Rip Roads, Strand Residents

Residents of Hillsborough neighborhood gaze across the chasm in Hillsborough Drive where there used to be a road that connected them to Shields Bridge Road. It was the only entrance and exit to the neighborhood.

By Connie Morrison-  Even after the rain ended and residents emerged to survey the damage, parts of Northampton County remained under a flood warning Monday after more than 10 inches of rain fell in less than 24 hours near the Accomack/ Northampton county line, causing Hillsborough Drive — the only access to the Hillsborough neighborhood in southern Accomack County — to wash out, stranding the cluster of homes west of Belle Haven.

Wardtown, Saltworks, and Cemetery roads in Northampton County were also closed near Occohannock Neck Road after flooding washed out those roads, along with Happy Union Drive in Exmore. Saltworks has been repaired and reopened, and VDOT expected to have Happy Union open to traffic by the end of the day Tuesday.

Tonya Cuff and her son, Jacob, 16, spent Sunday afternoon and evening watching the pond fill behind the house on Still Pond Lane in the Hillsborough neighborhood that they share with her father and mother, Robert and Cindy Gray. The well-known fishing spot’s water level fluctuated regularly, and this was the highest they had seen it.

The rain started Sunday afternoon and continued into the evening, getting stronger around 6:30 or 7 p.m. “It just poured,” said another Hillsborough resident, Jamie Davis. “We kept checking the radar and it said it would move out, but it never moved,” he said.

About 4 a.m. Cuff heard an “awful landslide, loud rumbling, vibrating-type noise,” and the “pop, pop, pop” of trees snapping. “And then we lost power,” she said. Jacob came running in. “You can hear the water rushing,” he told her. “He ran out back and he said ‘The water is rushing out of the pond. There are trees missing where the road should be.’”

Jay Diem, spokesperson for A&N Electric Cooperative (ANEC), said the first power outage calls started coming in around 4:30 a.m.

Cuff and Davis were two of about 36 homes left without power when the washout took not only the road, but the power line that ran underneath. The road ran along the top of the pond’s dam. A “big tube” ran under the road, along with a culvert that distributed water from the pond into the creek below. “That was repaired last year,” Cuff said.

By now it was 4:45 a.m., and Cuff’s father, Robert Gray, proposed they drive down and have a look at the damage. When they arrived, a neighbor was already there. In the darkness, he had managed to stop another neighbor from driving into the washout. As they stood together, light just beginning to creep over the horizon, they began to see the enormity of the devastation.

“It was amazing,” said Cuff. “We were watching the pond water merging with the creek water and scores of fish being deposited along the shore.” The differences in salinity and water temperature caused high fish mortality. “The fish were suffocating, basically. It was sad. My son was raised on this pond. For him, it was torture,” she said.

Cuff said after pausing to call VDOT and ANEC, she called the neighbors on the Shields Bridge Road side of the gap to ask them to intercept unsuspecting cars, but before anyone could get out there, a newspaper delivery vehicle had made the turn onto Hillsborough Drive. The gathered neighbors frantically tried to signal the driver with their cell phones. “We were jumping up and down … trying to get his attention,” she said. He paused long enough to see the trees were down. “Then he saw the road was gone,” she said.

Cuff began posting photos to Facebook to alert others to the danger.

Davis woke again around 6:30 a.m. and saw Cuff’s photos. He and other residents made their way down to the washout. “All the residents of Hillsborough were on one side (of the washout) and VDOT was on the other side,” he said.

“VDOT crews are assessing damage and working with county public safety” officials to assist residents, said VDOT spokeswoman Nina Napolitano. VDOT crews were alerted around 5 a.m. Monday. “They have placed signs and barricades on both sides to keep people away.” The agency is exploring options for temporary access for residents, while it works on permanent repairs to Hillsborough Road.

In the meantime, property owners bordering the development have granted temporary access across their land. One route was described by Cuff as a forestry road. “It’s very hard to get through, very tight. Not a lot of vehicles can get through,” she said. Another route goes along a farm field. “That is the route VDOT and A&N used. Some people with bigger vehicles passed through there.”

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed more than 10 inches of rain fell in an area roughly bounded by Belle Haven, Nassawadox, Jamesville, and Craddockville, ringed by areas of 6 to 10 inches of rain. Both Davis and Cuff have neighbors who speculated up to 16 inches fell: one by means of a 5-gallon bucket that was filled by the storm and one by a backyard rain gauge.

Davis picked up limbs from his yard during the forced downtime. He had gone out to get groceries Saturday night, so he is prepared for Hurricane Florence. A neighbor who works at the hospital had been ferried across the creek in a boat, to be picked up and taken to work. People are figuring things out and making the best of the situation.

“In a way we were lucky,” Davis said, that the disruption happened before the hurricane impacts the area later this week and VDOT and ANEC resources are spread thin. Davis said his power was back around 2 p.m. Diem said power was fully restored to the area by 2:30 p.m. Monday.

“It’s an amazing, unbelievable sight to see,” said Cuff. “It’s a testament: Don’t underestimate the power of water, especially with this hurricane coming. People don’t think about how much force is behind it. You can’t even begin to judge.”

She had high praise for VDOT, ANEC, Marshall’s Tree Service, and Accomack County Department of Public Safety. “They were outstanding. They were right on top of it. They did the best they could to help us,” she said.

Her daughter, Brittany, 20, has been unable to return home and has been welcomed by a friend for the time being. “I want to say strongly how much the Eastern Shore pulls together in times of trouble,” said Cuff. “I’m grateful for that and for this community.”

Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is assessing flood damage, clearing debris, and planning repairs to multiple roads on the Eastern Shore following a storm. Motorists should avoid driving through standing water and take an alternate route when possible.

Accomack County:

Hillsborough Drive (Route 810) near Shields Bridge Road (Route 178): Closed after flooding washed out the road and shoulders. VDOT is working to provide temporary access to affected residents.

VDOT is working to provide temporary access for people living in the Hillsborough neighborhood. Contract crews are clearing downed trees, and VDOT has placed signs and barricades on both sides of the damaged area for safety.

Northampton County:

Happy Union Drive (Route 692), Exmore: Road damaged due to a recent weather event. Crews are repairing the road and plan to reopen it Tuesday, Sept. 11.

Wardtown Road (Route 606) near Occohannock Neck Road (Route 183): Closed after flooding washed out the road. VDOT crews are waiting for water levels to recede, but water remains high, delaying repairs. Once waters recede, VDOT crews are planning to repair the road as soon as possible, weather permitting.

Saltworks Road (Route 615) near Occohannock Neck Road (Route 183): Flooding washed out the road, but VDOT crews have completed repairs and reopened the road to traffic.

Cemetery Road (Route 602) near Occohannock Neck Road (Route 183): Road was closed after flooding. The road remains partially closed as VDOT crews work to reopen the road completely. No homes were isolated by this closure.

VDOT asks residents to report damaged roads by contacting the VDOT Customer Service Center at https://my.vdot.virginia.gov or by calling 800-FORROAD (367-7623).

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