Hurricane Camille Remembered on Storm’s 50th Anniversary

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The Green Acres subdivision in Nelson County after Hurricane Camille in 1969.

There’s a lot to remember about events in 1969: Woodstock; the Beatles’ last album, Abbey Road; Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon; and the creation of a draft lottery to raise soldiers for the Vietnam war. This year, local memories are focused on recognizing the devastation of Hurricane Camille, when the population in Nelson County was reduced by 1% by lives lost in the devastating flood. 

Camille, a Category 5 hurricane, hit the Mississippi Coast causing widespread damage, but limited, according to the Weather Bureau, to the Gulf Coast area where warnings were issued. No one expected the storm to come so far inland and hit Central Virginia so hard.   

During the night of August 19, Nelson County was in the path of this devastating disaster, which brought a deluge to the Blue Ridge mountains without warning. The Virginia Department of Historical Resources Highway Marker states: “A rainfall in excess of 25 inches within a 5-hour period, swept away or buried many miles of road, over 100 bridges, and over 900 buildings. 114 people died and 37 remain missing. The damage totaled more than $100,000, 000 and Virginia was declared a disaster area.”  

Ambulance search and recovery in Woods Mill

The 50th anniversary of Camille has been recognized by the Nelson County Historical Society and Oakland Museum in a series of events throughout the year. On Saturday, June 15, Jimmy Fortune & Friends presented A Concert for Camille at Rockfish Valley Community Center.  Jimmy Fortune, now of Statler Brothers, recognized in the Country Music Hall of Fame, along with Bennie Dodd, and Joey Davis, told stories and sang songs about Camille. An opening song by Benny Dodd described how Route 29, then known as the “Lovingston Bypass” served as a landing place for helicopter rescues after the flood.  Songwriters Emily Moxley and James Raleigh Satterwhite were recognized for their song the trio performed called “Prevailing Rain,” with lyrics telling of “the rain kept falling, the water did rise high, the mountains did crumble and the people did cry.” 

Fortune told the audience of learning to play his banjo as a young man and losing the instrument in the flood. Worst of all was losing Mitchell, one of the former band members who disappeared at Davis Creek. This tale was followed by a song he wrote, “You’re Not Forgotten,” which tells the story of August 19-20 in lyrics including, “Storm was coming without warning, rain came down with a mighty roaring sound …” 

Mr. and Mrs. Dewey Fortune’s home on Rockfish River was badly hit by the storm but the occupants escaped alive.

The last song recognized that the flood and devastation are gone, but the memory has never left the families affected. The song played was, “Why Won’t You Leave Us Camille?” Fortune and friends reminded the audience, “We play these songs in tribute as we listen to the last generation left to tell the stories. Because of what happened here, we came back stronger. We are Nelson County Strong.” 

In 1969, the people in Nelson County had to work together to recover from the devastation of Virginia’s worst natural disaster. Camille’s destruction washed away racial tensions of the time, ending a long era of state-sanctioned “Passive Resistance,” known in 1965 as a “Freedom of Choice Plan” in Nelson County. While the school board voted in 1968 under Federal pressure to turn the black Nelson Memorial High School into an integrated junior high, it was immediately after the 1969 flood recovery that resistance yielded and all nine public schools were promptly and fully integrated. 

Jimmy Fortune and Friends Concert for Camille

Nelson County Historical Society held a program, Critical Assistance Following Camille, June 23 at the Nelson Center that more than 100 people attended. The program was a salute to the pilots who helped in the search and recovery efforts, including Doug Nelms, a Vietnam-era pilot, and Quinton “Skip” Staudt, Jr., whose job was to relocate injured and stranded families. From the helicopter view, Nelms described “sides of mountains were washed away” and “such debris and devastation created a treacherous terrain where I could not land (in mud).” Staudt said “the roads were all covered in mud, trees and bridges were out and rockslides covered the area.” Military aircraft joined the search efforts. State Route 29 southbound was closed to all through traffic at the Albemarle County line, as northbound lanes in Lovingston were the landing zone for the rescue efforts.  

Davis Creek after Hurricane Camille

Those continued through September 13, after 25 days of operation. Highlights of the effort included the Labor Day search with 500 rescue squad people and 200 Mennonites. On one day, 17 helicopters were put out on rescue, and 306 search parties were sent out on multiple flights, with the Army alone logging over 12,000 miles, 1,102 passengers and 336 sorties. 

Much recognition and thanks were expressed to Mennonite Community and Disaster Services, which sent dozens of volunteer workers to the county. Many of those in attendance had experienced the flood, and personal accounts were offered by several. Ruby Swain, RN, of Martin’s Store, shared her remembered experience of going out with the helicopters as part of a medical team to give vaccinations for typhoid and tetanus. Linda Raynor Andary, of Nellysford, then age 10, remembered seeing her father, Dr. Raynor, serving as the medical examiner.  

Bar Delk, historical society board member, presided over a panel of locals including Judge Michael Gamble, Kenneth Robertson and Phil Payne, who were among the dozens of people helicopters carried to assist the search along river banks after Camille. Payne recounted showing the pilots where to go, and when a person was spotted, he jumped in the James River to recover him or her.  Gamble, slightly older at age 19, had received some ROTC training with Huey helicopters.  Robertson was 18 years old at the time and recalled the first day’s confusion at looking over the extent of the damage. 

Many personal stories are captured at the Nelson County Historical Society, where a permanent exhibit is being created. Commemorating Camille is a new book on the impact of Hurricane Camille on Nelson County’s land and people. It contains more than 150 photographs, many not published before, as well as explanations of the weather phenomenon that dumped more than 27 inches of rain in just six hours.

Donations to help fund an enhanced Camille exhibit at Oakland Museum are welcome. See www.nelsonhistorical.org for more information, book pre-orders and sponsorships. 

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