When surprises turn deadly

HANOVER, Va. - The last thing Elizabeth Reavis saw before the water sneaked up behind her, sucked her under and sent her tumbling downstream -- battered and disoriented and freezing cold -- was her children.

They were curled around a tree a few feet from where their truck had skidded along the banks of a flooded creek, just three miles from home.

It was raining hard and had been for hours, but Reavis and her neighbors figured they were getting hit merely by a strong summer storm.

What they didn't know: Hurricane Gaston, which had rolled inland after its strike on South Carolina the day before, was drenching Virginia with torrential rainfall and flash flooding.

Forecasters have struggled for years to predict rainfall during hurricanes -- it's a particularly troubling blind spot because drowning from inland flooding has become the No. 1 killer during hurricanes.

''There's no doubt we need to do a better job forecasting precipitation, absolutely no doubt,'' said National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield.

In September 2004, 3,000 people died when Hurricane Jeanne stalled over Haiti, producing torrential flooding and mudslides.

Entire families drowned, bodies unearthed as floodwaters receded.

In one hospital, every patient died when walls of water and mud overwhelmed the building.

Mayfield considered hiring counselors for his staff.

''That one just broke my heart,'' he said.

For years, scientists at the Miami-based Hurricane Research Division, which supports the Hurricane Center, have pushed to launch more extensive studies to improve rainfall forecasts.

But they say they've received little support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

One key project: tapping into the power of a unique NASA satellite to better study rainfall globally, and in the end, help researchers understand where and when rain will fall during hurricanes.

''We're just scratching the surface,'' said Hurricane Research Division Director Frank Marks.

In some parts of Virginia in 2004, Gaston dumped 12 inches of rain within eight hours, catching local Weather Service meteorologists by surprise. By the time they started calling the downpour ''the remnants of . . . Gaston'' in weather advisories that grew more urgent as the night wore on, creeks and roadways had flooded. Eight people drowned.

Reavis and her two grown children had just left their house to pick up a family friend when their truck became trapped in rising waters along a creek bed. They climbed through the windows, but the water hurtled Reavis downstream.

She grabbed a branch and pulled herself up, calling into the wind, ``I'm all right! I'm all right!''

No one answered.

Alone, beneath a canopy of oak trees and a black sky, her shorts and water shoes torn away by the water, Reavis told herself that her children were strong. Her daughter, Janai, was 26; her son, Jamie, 19. Two hours later, a motorist heard her cries and pulled her from the creek.

''I found a girl,'' he told Reavis. ``She's here.''

''But my son,'' Reavis said. ``Where is my son?''

Jamie Reavis, a tattoo artist two days away from buying his first car, drowned as he struggled to buttress his sister against a tree.

His body was found at daybreak.