A flood in the mountains: 50 years later, Nelson County remembers Camille’s devastation

Whole families and homes were swept away in Davis Creek, the hardest hit community in Nelson County.
Nelson County Historical Society Whole families and homes were swept away in Davis Creek, the hardest hit community in Nelson County. Nelson County Historical Society

Fifty years ago, man first walked on the moon and a music festival in Woodstock, New York, signaled a generational shift. As iconic as those events are, that’s not what Nelson County remembers about 1969, when the remnants of Hurricane Camille latched onto the mountains the evening of August 19 and dumped around three feet of rain. By morning, 124 people were dead, some of whom were never found.

Warren Raines was 14 years old when the water from the Tye River started rising and seeping into his house in Massies Mill.

His most vivid memory of Camille 50 years later? The funeral of his family about a week after the storm. “I’d never seen anything like it. To have four caskets lined up there. My little sister hadn’t been found then or it would have been five.”

That night, Raines “became an orphan and lost my childhood,” he says. He doesn’t enjoy talking about it—“I get more emotional than before.” But he does talk about it, which some people still can’t do even now. “If you don’t tell people what happened, they don’t know,” he says. “They don’t know about the rainfall.”

Raines compares Camille to July’s Hurricane Barry, which dropped 20 inches of rain in Louisiana over three days. “We got as many as 32 inches in eight hours,” he says. Many have described Camille’s precipitation as raining so hard that you had to cup your hand over your nose to be able to breathe.

Nelson County is remembering Hurricane Camille as the anniversary of “the 19th,” as it’s called there, approaches. The Nelson County Historical Society has offered programs that look at the local response to the flood, meteorological factors, and the pilots who flew in to find those swept away, as well as a concert headlined by former Statler Brother Jimmy Fortune with Bennie Dodd and Joey Davis, all Camille survivors.

Woody Greenberg, who’s on the historical society board, assesses the impact of Hurricane Camille on Nelson 50 years later: “Definitely it’s a psychological scar that’s not going away for the people who lived through it,” he says. “Some people will talk about it who wouldn’t before, and we’re trying to preserve their stories.”

This small rural county of around 11,000 people lost 1 percent of its population, and survivors say most knew at least one person who died—in some cases, many more.

Even to those who were there, the scope of the devastation wasn’t immediately apparent. The four-lane U.S. 29 bypass had just opened, but debris at Woods Mill made the highway impassable to the north. Flooded waterways in the south end of the county also impeded travel. With telephone lines downed, it took the outside world several days to learn that an unprecedented disaster had taken place in Nelson.

“More water than I’d ever seen”

Bar Delk was 22 years old, a VMI grad who was headed to Fort Benning in January and then to Vietnam. He’d been in Charlottesville the evening of August 19 and was driving home. “The farther we came, the harder it was raining,” he says. “When I got to Woods Mill, there was water coming across the road. Five tractor trailers were parked there and weren’t crossing.”

Those five tractor trailers washed away, he adds. “We found two of them. Three tractor trailers were never found.”

A river runs through it: U.S. 29 bypass at Woods Mill. Nelson County Historical Society

A few years earlier, Delk had a summer job working on the highway, and with a local’s confidence, felt he could get across. He concedes, “That was more water than I’d ever seen.”

He made it to Lovingston, where water was pushing into the IGA. “We cleaned it up a couple of times before the wall caved in,” he says. A trailer was on fire, but no one could get out of town because the entrances were blocked, he says. “We realized something was going on.”

In the western part of the county, by 2am, the Raines family decided to relocate to higher ground. Their neighbors, the Woods, sent their four children—Donna Fay, Gary, Teresa, and Mike—to pile into the Raines’ car, where Warren had gathered with his parents and siblings: Johanna, 18, Carl, 16, Sandy, 9, and Ginger, 7.

Rising water killed the engine and the refugees took to Route 56. No one realized how rapidly the water was rising. “In less than two minutes, it went from knee deep to four or five feet deep,” says Raines. “The water was so swift you couldn’t stand against it.”

Warren and his brother Carl clung to trees and were the only ones in his family who survived the rising water. Two of the Wood children—Donna Fay and Gary—were among the 33 people whose bodies were never recovered.

For the next couple of years, Raines lived with another family. In his senior year of high school he went back to the homeplace, where the first floor had flooded during the storm. “The upstairs was untouched,” he says. “That was sad. If we’d stayed…”

Warren Raines still lives in Nelson County, and remembers his childhood home in Massies Mill as a happy place. He became an orphan August 19, 1969, when he lost five family members. Sanjay Suchak

He’s philosophical about what might have happened. “If we’d stayed, it would have been a frightening night. The lightning was like day. We would have seen the water rushing by with homes, automobiles. We would have been waiting for the house to break up.”

He pauses. “If is such a big word.” He’s aware that others who remained in their homes were swept away that night. “If we’d done that. If we’d not done that.” It was impossible to know.

Declaring a disaster

Jane Raup was 14, living in Wingina in the southeast part of Nelson County on the James River, and she awoke to see flooding in the fields around her home. “We had no idea what was happening at this end of the county,” she says.

Her father, Cliff Wood, was on the board of supervisors. He and two cousins put a jon boat on a truck and made it as far as Howardsville, where they rescued two people on a roof, she says.

“All this water on the Rockfish River—he realized something was going on,” she says. He took back roads to Lovingston to check on her grandmother, who told him, “I hear it’s bad at Davis Creek,” Raup remembers.

It was, in fact, really bad at Davis Creek, in the northern part of the county, where 52 people died. In the Huffman family alone, 18 perished. Aerial photos show Davis Creek turned into a river of rock going down the mountainside. The bodies of 20 people who died were never found.

In Lovingston that day, Wood ran into Bob Goad, the commonwealth’s attorney. They drove up U.S. 29 to Muddy Creek, which had flooded, and a house was in the middle of the median.

“Someone asked if it was a disaster,” says Raup. The county’s civil defense team had been preparing for a nuclear disaster, not a natural disaster. But as the only supervisor who could make it to the county seat, Wood declared a disaster, his daughter recounts, and took charge of the recovery and relief effort.

“Local governments have a responsibility in those situations,” Wood said in 2009. “That’s how I got involved.”

Wood set up the command center on the new bypass. “He said, this is the perfect place. It’s flat,” says Raup.

When Wood made it home that night, he told his family, “You wouldn’t believe it.” Says Raup, “He was in shock. I think everyone was in shock.”

The U.S. 29 bypass around Lovingston had just opened. It became the command center and landing strip for the search and relief effort. Brower York Jr./Nelson County Historical Society

Nelson Sheriff Bill Whitehead lived in the western district of the county, near Massies Mill and Tyro, and he couldn’t get to Lovingston, says his son, Dick Whitehead, who was almost 18 when the hurricane struck.

Like others, he was trapped by washed out bridges. But he was able to make a radio distress call that was heard by the sheriff’s department in Augusta County, which alerted the civil defense office in Richmond. John Kent, the Augusta sheriff, sent a helicopter to Nelson.

“The first day, you’re hoping to find survivors,” says Dick Whitehead. “It was still a rescue. By the first night, it was obvious it was not a rescue. It was a body recovery.”

Yet that first day, it was still hard to fathom how bad it was. “You don’t realize how many houses had washed away,” he says. Nor did he immediately understand how many people he knew who had died.

Thirty in the Nelson County school system died, he says, and estimates he probably knew 15 of them. Three were in his class, including Warren Raines’ sister, Johanna. But on August 20, he had no idea what to expect. “You can’t prepare yourself for that when you look out the window on the first day.”

The image of the overturned Bland Harvey house in Roseland has been published more than any other Camille photo. Brower York Jr./Nelson County Historical Society

Fifteen-year-old Phil Payne wasn’t aware anything was amiss when he awoke the morning after the storm in parents’ house, a mile south of Lovingston. “That’s what makes this storm unique,” he says. “We didn’t know. It’s mind boggling. The communications did not exist.”

His father, who owned the Chevrolet dealership, got a call from his bookkeeper, who said she couldn’t get to work because a house was in the middle of the road. “He didn’t really believe her,” says Payne.

After breakfast, he went with his father to Lovingston and saw mud in front of the IGA. They drove—or got rides when the road was blocked—up U.S. 29. “It was a matter of just yards,” says Payne, determining whether residents lived or died.

It wasn’t until midday that the rescue process began. “I don’t think anyone could grasp the scope of the disaster,” Payne says. “You have a flood in the mountains. How did that happen?”

His father coordinated search and rescue—although “by then there was no rescue,” says Payne.  He went up in helicopters multiple times.

Because other volunteers hadn’t arrived, he and his friends searched. They found three bodies the first day. After a few days, his father decided maybe that wasn’t the best job for teenage boys. “Dad pulled some of the young guys out of it, including me,” recalls Payne. “That didn’t last long.”

Some of the older men had to go back to work and Payne continued to search during a period of time that all ran together. Later, he tried to label some photos he’d taken. “I was off by one week on every one,” he says.

The force of Camille

In the Nelson County Historical Society archives, there’s this entry: “The height of the storm—midnight to 3am; Most victims were nude when found.”

The force of the water stripped off clothes and even wedding rings, and people either escaped injury entirely, “or they died,” said Dr. Robert Raynor in 2009. He assisted chief medical examiner Dr. James Gamble, and said the dead either drowned or suffered blunt force trauma from the tons of debris surging through the water.

A home on the Rockfish River after Hurricane Camille. Nelson County Historical Society

And it was the water that caused mountains to melt. “It was one of the most catastrophic, historic floods to hit the U.S.,” says Jeffrey Halverson, a geography and environmental sciences professor and severe storm expert for the Washington Post.

Hurricane Camille reached the Gulf Coast as a Category 5 storm—“one of only three to hit the United States in the 20th century,” says Halverson. But after killing 174 people there, it was losing steam as it headed north and had transformed to a depression, he says.

The local forecast called for a chance of showers, clearing in the morning. “The fact it roared back to life in Virginia was a tremendous surprise to everyone,” says Halverson.

He lists five pieces in a “conspiracy of circumstances” that turned Camille into a killer again. It contained remnants of low pressure that were pulling moisture into the air. The mountains helped accelerate that. In addition, a cold front moved into central Virginia from the north and parked. A disturbance in the jet stream over central Virginia also caused moist air to rise. And to top it off, the ground was “very, very wet,” says Halverson. Evaporation from the saturated ground enriched the air with higher levels of moisture, causing extremely high humidity.

Any one of those factors independently can cause moist air to rise, says Halverson. All together, “they conspired to produce one of the most intense rainstorms ever documented in the United States.”

For eight hours, at least 30 inches of rain fell over Nelson County, although that’s believed to be a minimum as most rain gauges washed away—and they don’t measure 30 inches anyway. “That’s almost three feet of water,” he says. “This system kept generating itself over eight hours.”

Here’s what happens when 30 inches of rain falls in a short period: “The land surface cannot accommodate that volume of water,” says Halverson. Add to that the steepness of the mountains and the denseness of the soil on top of bedrock. “It was like a sponge. This huge, tremendous weight gave way. Whole sides of mountains came down…mud, vegetation, rock, and even habitation.”

Mudflows from hundreds of locations where the slopes gave way coalesced and merged, burying rock and anything else in its path many feet deep, says Halverson. “It literally tore apart the land.”

You can still see those bare spots on the mountains around Nelson today. When helicopter pilot Douglas Neims flew into Nelson in 1969, he saw what looked “kind of like ski area tracks going through the trees, but it was mud and landslides.”

Neims, who had returned from Vietnam in 1968, was one of many vets who used their piloting skills in getting in and out of difficult spots to help with the rescue effort. He remembers flying south to Lovingston from Fort Belvoir over a lush, green Virginia in August—”until you fly over a hill and you’re looking at total devastation. You could see houses and cars buried. It hit you that this was devastation.”

Many Nelson residents oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and some point to Camille and its thousands of landslides as an example of why the pipeline is a bad idea.

Anne Witt, a geohazards specialist with Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, which has mapped over 5,000 landslides from Hurricane Camille, says, “Any large construction project that includes large excavations in soil and rock should take geological hazards (including landslides) into consideration during the building process.”

Geologists at the department are using a laser system to develop landslide susceptibility maps for the area, but Witt says the project is still in progress, and hasn’t reached any conclusions yet. It’s expected completion date is 2021.

50 years later

Over the course of half a century, any locality will change. In 1969, Nelson County was a farming community with two major employers—American Cyanamid, which extracted titanium dioxide and created a superfund site on the Piney River, and Alberene Soapstone in Schuyler.

Both are now closed. There’s still some farming, but “the small orchards did not recover,” says Woody Greenberg. “Years ago, every farm had an orchard.”

That includes Clyde Harvey’s family farm, at the top of Davis Creek. And although his orchards were damaged, in trying to salvage trees he discovered the Ginger Gold apple, which he patented. Says his daughter Debbie Harvey, “Ginger Gold came from Davis Creek.”

Since Camille, Wintergreen has been built, along with microbreweries and wineries. “Now the tourism industry is thriving,” says Greenberg.

Bar Delk still finds it odd that the county would go from making illegal moonshine and peach brandy to legal alcohol. “Who would have thunk it?” he asks.

For Warren Raines, the sound of a helicopter brings back memories of Camille. “So many helicopters,” he says. He recalls a strange smell to the mud that he’s only smelled one other time, possibly from stagnant mud at a construction site.

Helicopters also trigger memories of Camille for Jane Raup, and she remembers an aroma that was “part decay, part green wood.”

In 1969, school was delayed a month. “I remember seeing Warren’s brother standing in the door to the cafeteria, wondering what to say to him,” she says. “There was no counseling. We didn’t know about PTSD.”

Unlike Warren Raines, who says he never wanted to leave Nelson County, Carl Raines left and never came back.

The home of Nina Fitzgerald ended up in the median strip of U.S. Route 29 north of Lovingston, courtesy of Hurricane Camille damage. Blair Clarke Camille Photo Collection/Nelson County Historical Society

Of the many heroes from Camille, one group stands out. “Nelson County really loves the Mennonites,” who showed up to recover bodies, shovel mud, and help rebuild homes, says Raup.

The hurricane “made us aware we needed a 911 emergency system,” she says, and bridges and roads were improved when they were rebuilt.

“I do believe those of us growing up then are closer,” says Raup. “There’s a bond there.”

For Dick Whitehead, the big difference between the 50th anniversary and the 40th is “fewer and fewer people who have first-hand knowledge” are still around. So many of the people “who got us through this,” like his own father, are gone.

There’s more awareness now of floodplains, and very few homes were rebuilt in those areas, he says. “That’s a positive.”

The news isn’t so positive in areas where there were rockslides and people have built. “Maybe they didn’t do the research,” he says, “but some are building in vulnerable areas.”

Houses collided in Massies Mill, where the Tye River flowed down Route 56. Nelson County Historical Society

The big question: Can the devastating effects of Camille happen again?

“Absolutely,” says Halverson­—and you don’t even need a hurricane.

He points to Madison County in 1995. A summer system of thunderstorms dropped more than 20 to 25 inches of rain in 12 hours, he says. Three people died, and there were “terrific flash flooding and debris flows.”

Says Halverson, “We see in less than 30 years two extreme rain events along the Blue Ridge Mountains due to these torrential cloudbursts.” He sees no reason to think this didn’t happen in the past before people were around to measure it, given the area’s steep mountains and “unlimited supply of moisture.”

He says, “You’re experiencing thousands of years of erosion in the space of a few hours.”

And with a changing climate and rainstorms becoming more intense, combined with the “proclivity of more people moving into harm’s way in these locations,” he says it could happen again, maybe not in the same location, but anywhere up and down the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Halverson offers this advice: Don’t forget about a hurricane once it makes landfall because it can spring back to life. Hurricane Agnes started in Florida in 1972, and created Pennsylvania’s worst flooding ever, he says. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit Florida and continued on to drop 50 to 60 tornadoes over Washington, DC.

“Over and over, we see these remnants gaining strength,” he says.

There are some tremendous lessons to be learned here,” observes Halverson. “It’s a dramatic story.”


Remembering Camille

A memorial for the victims, with music and photos, will take place Sunday, August 18, at 2pm at Nelson County High School.

And a forthcoming book, Commemorating Camille: Never Forget, edited by Doris Delk, Bar Delk, Dick Whitehead, and Woody Greenberg, tells the stories of the 18 communities affected by the hurricane. It will be available at Oakland Museum the third week in August.

Along with the Civil War, Hurricane Camille was one of the deadliest events to hit Nelson County. Sanjay Suchak

Death toll: 124

Fatalities in Nelson weren’t limited to one part of the county.

By the time the rain stopped on August 20, 1969, Hurricane Camille had killed 124 people in Nelson County. This map indicates where they perished—some of the bodies were never found.

 

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Deborah Wyatt

What an incredibly fascinating and inclusive summary of the devastation called Camille. I didn’t experience it, but after I moved to Nelson, everyone seemed to have a horror tale. Thanks for the tender retelling of the seemingly impossible, Lisa. And for the cautionary note as the ACP seeks to wind through “colluvial” (landslide) soils.