I drove up Mill Mountain after work late on a Thursday afternoon to stand beneath the Star and look at the city. It had been a hot, sticky day—the kind where a few seconds in the open air left you longing for a nearby pool to dive into—but the view was worth the lingering discomfort. Things were a bit cooler this high above the city anyway. More real. More honest.
Mill Mountain was a good place to get away. It had a beautiful quiet about it in the late afternoon, especially on weekdays when the tourists were sparse. I always enjoyed the blessed incongruity of the world’s largest man-made illuminated star—though I could do without the mind-numbing neon buzz.
The view of Roanoke, the so-called “Star City,” was best in the winter when the air was clear. But it was mid-summer now. You could barely make out the buildings and the just-illuminated streetlights through the thick summer haze that blanketed the valley. Storm clouds gathered over the hills and mountains to the west, looking like a standard line of afternoon thunderstorms.
I heard footsteps approach from behind and to the right—from the nature trail, not the parking lot. They stopped near me. I ignored the new visitor as I usually do. I didn’t come to Mill Mountain intending to make conversation.
“How’s the view?” the stranger asked.
A talker, I thought. “See for yourself.”
He stepped up to the railing beside me. I didn’t look at him and, as far as I know, he didn’t look at me.
“This place has a darkness about it lately,” he said.
I ignored him.
The stranger sighed. “People do more bad than good in this valley. It’s a place built on lies and rumors.”
I knew exactly what he meant, and I had grown tired of it too, but I just shrugged. “What can ya’ do, eh?”
I’d had my share of that darkness in my life. And it wasn’t just me either. Everybody I knew had been the victim of a small-town smear campaign or been on the receiving end of some hateful soul’s web of lies. That darkness seemed to permeate that place, hiding around every corner, infecting every life. It sapped the goodness right out of you.
The stranger stepped back from the railing and his footsteps receded in the direction they came from.
I heard a low rumble of thunder in the mid-distance and a drop of rain landed square on my right shoulder. I walked back to my car and started driving down the mountain back to town.
Soon, the storm came in at full strength. I down-shifted my aging Mustang’s transmission into second and turned the wipers on ‘high,’ but still had to lean forward and squint to see the road ahead. The lightning followed not long after, so fast it was like a strobe. The thunder became a continuous roar largely drowning out 96.3 WROV’s rock and roll.
As I crossed the bridge over the Roanoke River and railroad tracks back into the city, the shrill tone of the Emergency Alert System came over the radio. A flash flood warning for the entire region had just been declared by the National Weather Service. ” . . . prolonged rain overnight and continuing through the day tomorrow as a low pressure system stalls over the Roanoke Valley. Residents in low-lying and flood-prone areas should seek higher ground.”
The clock-radio jarred me to consciousness at 6:30 a.m. Thunder had faded into the distance, but it was still raining. I could hear it coming down in angry sheets and easily visualized the reflective, misty spray off every exposed surface outside. I was already dreading the walk from my apartment to my car—parked inconveniently in the middle of the lot. I still felt a lingering dampness from my sprint inside the night before.
I turned on the television to the middle of Jeff Clavier’s weather report on News Channel 10. ” . . . Airport has already recorded over four inches of rain overnight, and we’ve got lots more where that came from. A low pressure system is sitting over the Roanoke Valley, pinned by a high over New England and a stationary front off the coast. We’re looking at steady rain for at least the next twenty-four hours, which means much of the area remains under a flash flood warning. We are already seeing severe flooding in downtown Roanoke. . . . “
Glancing out my 2nd floor window I noticed that the creek behind the complex was already creeping far over its banks.
” . . . in fact, we could potentially see flooding as bad or worse than the Great Flood of 1985, which until now was the worst Roanoke had ever seen. That flood, set off by the remnants of Hurricane Juan, pushed the Roanoke River more than twenty feet over its banks and submerged much of the city for days. . . . “
I turned off the television, grabbed a coat, and set out into the downpour intending to dutifully report for work at the Subway Restaurant in a nearby strip-mall. I made it about half way. Drenched from the run to the car and running the heater full-blast in a vain attempt to dry off, I made a right turn into a lake that hadn’t been there the day before.
I stopped, but not before my front tires were three-quarters submerged. I backed out—probably just avoiding a stall-out—but the water was rising at a frightening pace. A fire truck sat—lights still on—abandoned much further in.
I swiveled the dial on my radio in search of a station covering the weather, but most of my favorites had disappeared into a sea of static.
I began to get a bad feeling—the unsettled, butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling you get when your life seems to be going terribly wrong and you have to make a snap decision that could affect you for the indefinite future. I knew I should get out of town. Higher ground seemed like a good idea.
I drove to Route 24 west, which would take me out of Roanoke, through Vinton, and up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Very quickly I was caught up in the worst traffic jam I had ever seen, put into place (unbeknownst to me) by the mayor’s belated evacuation order given less than fifteen minutes before.
At a dead-stop in the left lane, I sat. The traffic light, visible three-hundred feet ahead, cycled pointlessly through red, green, yellow, then red again. Between the cars to my right, down a small embankment, I saw a creek. The water was high over its natural banks, creeping up slowly toward the road.
Soon, the last working radio station—94.9 Star Country—faded into static, and only the beat of my windshield wipers and ceaseless patter of raindrops remained.
Then I heard a strange sound coming from somewhere in the distance behind me. I looked in the rear-view and saw movement, but couldn’t tell what it was. I turned around and squinted through the rear window.
Then I saw it.
It was a wave. A wave of unimaginable, nightmarish scale.
I opened the driver’s door and stepped into the downpour, staring backwards at the long line of headlights pointed toward me and beyond to higher ground. I watched the cars as they got caught up, turned around, then disappeared into the mass of water, trees, and debris churning in my direction.
Soon it was upon me.
I heard an incredible crushing noise, was thrown backwards, and all went dark.
I don’t remember if I dreamed, and I don’t know how long I was unconscious. I don’t know how many miracles must have occurred to keep me from drowning as cars, offices, homes, and entire tree- and building-lined skylines disappeared, never to be seen again. Many thousands died, and those that survived will never forget the deafening roar or the deafening silence that followed.
The disaster, they say, occurred when the Spring Hollow Reservoir’s dam gave way and the man-made lake’s entire contents coursed downstream. But a few that survived, those who landed where I did, know different. This was no accident of fate, no error in engineering, and no coincidence.
I washed up at the familiar Mill Mountain Overlook, beneath its now-darkened neon star, and we were the first to see the New Roanoke Sea after the clouds parted and the sun shone through once more.
One man, wearing a black leather jacket and tattered blue jeans, stood silently at the railing watching his handiwork. He had done it once before, only once, and had sworn to an ancient people that he would never to do it again. But this valley, this people, and all of their broken promises warranted an exception.
Later that day a rainbow appeared over the New Roanoke Sea, not as a promise this time, but as a warning.