The Birth of Modern Occoquan
Remembering Hurricane Agnes Fifty Years Later
by Robert Currer
It had been a soggy spring that blossomed into a muggy summer such that, by June, the noonday heat would leave you slick with your shirt sticking to your back between the shoulder blades. Mosquitoes mingled with fireflies in the twilight evenings and each day steamed you more than the one before as the sad, longing lyrics of “Sylvia’s Mother” topped the radio requests. In the small residential community of Occoquan, June of 1972 would have been shaping up like any other summer if it hadn’t been for Agnes.
Origins of a Tempest
On June 11th, 1972, a small storm began brewing in the Caribbean Sea. By the 14th, she had veered over the Yucatan Peninsula, strengthening into a tropical depression, and swinging north into the Gulf of Mexico. In the following days, Agnes picked up speed and intensity, achieving hurricane status on the 18th before making landfall over the Florida panhandle in the late hours of June 19th. Over the next two days, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia were pelted with torrential rains as Agnes began to weaken. Indeed, as Agnes moved east, it was believed that the storm had all but petered out. However, a different weather system collided with and was absorbed by Agnes even as she entered the Atlantic, swinging her north along the Chesapeake.
Hundred Year Storm
On June 22nd, strengthened by her run up the coast, Agnes slammed into Occoquan with a fury that exceeded all hundred-year predictions. Fourteen inches of rain fell on the tiny community in 24 hours. Glutted on the torrential downpour and pushed to hightide by an unfortunate full moon, the Occoquan River spilled 20 feet beyond its banks. A wall of water six feet high roared over the top of the dam, thundering into the community below. The raging river tore through the streets, smashing into buildings and flooding homes. The waters crashed into the single lane, iron bridge of route 123. The force was enough to topple it, leaving a tangled nest of girders in Agnes’s wake.
When at last Agnes’s wrath had passed, the town was in ruins. Mercifully, residents had evacuated to storm shelters elsewhere in Prince William County. Consequently, there were no deaths in Occoquan, though Agnes claimed the lives of 117 people over 12 states before finally dissipating. The property damage to Occoquan was one of highest of any community affected by the storm. When all tallied, the town suffered about $2.5 million dollars in damage.
By the 24th, families had begun returning to their ruined homes to find the belongings they had left behind were sacrificed to the storm. Many chose to sell instead of trying to repair what remained of their shattered houses. Local businesses bought these properties, especially those in downtown, and slowly began to rebuild. Business breathed new life into the sleepy town, transforming it into an up-and-coming community. The years that followed saw an explosion of cottage businesses in Occoquan, sparking a proud lineage that continues even 50 years later.
All photos courtesy Occoquan Historical Society