45 years ago, this hurricane wreaked havoc in Nelson County
By Richard Deardoff
Living in the foothills and mountains of Virginia, we seem to always be exempt from terrible weather which we watch assault other areas. Hurricanes lash the Gulf Coast and Florida, tornadoes rip across the Plains, volcanoes, and tremors threaten the West Coast. Recently some of these phenomena have struck the Commonwealth, and there are some who blame global warming or fracking. However, long before current climate concerns were popular, one of the most devastating hurricanes in history struck rural Nelson County.
To those of a certain generation, Nelson County is familiar as the setting for the hit television series “The Walton’s” — a bucolic vision of an extended American family growing up southwest of Charlottesville during the Great Depression. In the 1970’s this dramatization of Earl Hamner’s Virginia childhood highlighted traditional values of hard work and honesty. To a nation reeling from Watergate and Vietnam, the appeal was undeniable. Traveling to Nelson County today still evokes images of Virginia before urban sprawl. There is only one traffic light in the entire county, added after the first McDonalds was erected on Route 29. While rural electrification began in 1937, it was only in the past two years that the last hollow received full service.
Forty-five years ago the county was largely a farming community — a sufficient distance from both Charlottesville and Lynchburg to be isolated from either. On the evening of August 19, 1969, residents had gone to bed amidst what seemed to be a summer rainstorm. The evening news had reported that Hurricane Camille — with winds of more than 200 miles per hour — had landed on the Gulf Coast killing 143 people before heading north up the Mississippi Valley. Since moving inland, it had been demoted to a tropical depression and appeared to pose little threat to Virginia. However, the storm veered east from Kentucky heading toward the Atlantic with Nelson County straight in its path. Madison County, surrounded by mountains that would trap the rain clouds for eight hours, created what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called, “one of the all-time meteorological anomalies in the United States.”
Why was there no warning? At the time, the U.S. Weather Bureau was tracking Camille — along the pathway she was assumed to follow. Remote central Virginia was literally “beneath the radar.” The closest tracking stations were in Washington, D.C. — 150 miles away and Pittsburgh, 200 miles away. Each of these missed Nelson because of the curvature of the Earth.
By 9 p.m. people were ending their day. Sheriff Bill Whitehead, after monitoring primary elections in the county, was in bed by 9:30 p.m. The Thompson family had driven four hours from Hampton to visit their grandmother. Warren Raines and his brother had spent the day working on the 1954 Ford station wagon near the Tye River and went to bed as the sun went down.
By the time Sheriff Whitehead was alerted something was amiss he stepped outside and could hardly breathe. “I had to shield my nose with my hand to get any air at all,” he said. Rain was coming down in the largest concentration ever recorded in North America. The Thompson family quickly saw their trailer starting to float. As people fled to higher ground, many of the houses they left behind, the very earth they had grown up on, changed completely.
The Thompsons collected their children from the trailer to gather together in the house. Suddenly a rush of water swept the frame house off the foundation where gravity had kept it for decades. A very wet summer had loosened the topsoil on hillsides and the incredible additional rain – estimated at 27 inches falling between five and eight hours – caused dirt and rocks to slide down the slope. As the Thompson family huddled together, their home floated until crashing into a bridge. Then the house “exploded.” Adults and children were hurtled along with the flood, smashing into rocks and timbers. One young boy, Dale, was saved when he became impaled on a nail — despite the pain it kept him from being carried away. His mother regained consciousness four miles away, wearing only her bra and a wristwatch. The youngest child, Bonnie, was never found.
As the Raines family decided to abandon their home and to seek shelter, they started walking down Route 56. The water was not only rising quickly, its speed was accelerating. Warren was knocked off his feet but was able to grab onto a tree. Seeing his mother about 30 feet down the road, he yelled he was going to let go — she said she could catch him. When he emerged at the place she had been, she was gone. Decades later Warren still recalls ruefully that their house remained intact. Had they stayed home his family would have survived.
Throughout the county these stories were repeated — with no one in the state or federal government aware anything had happened. Something horrible had occurred to this rural community.
A local Baptist preacher, Vernon Lewis, volunteered to identify the bodies. Lewis said the toughest part of his job was getting volunteers to notify the surviving kin who waited and hoped for positive news from the Lynchburg hospital. Altogether 92 were identified, another 32 were reported missing and their bodies were never recovered. Of particular interest were eight bodies never identified, four of whom were children. Autopsies indicated they all had the same last meal, meaning they were traveling together.
As the impact of the disaster was discovered, a remaining strip of Route 29 became a runway for police planes and military helicopters. The Clerk of the General Court became “Command Central” coordinating reports of dead bodies and sending helicopters to seek survivors. In one tragic case, a young girl was rescued by a helicopter which was transporting corpses. As she turned around to look in the storage area she saw her dead brother.
In addition to the human loss, more than 200 miles of highway was destroyed and more than two months passed before temporary detours were constructed. Ninety-six bridges had been wiped out, including 19 primary bridges. One year later, six were still unusable. More than 200 buildings were destroyed and the Southern Railroad line was cut for 19 days. At just one church, Oak Hill, there are 30 markers for flood victims.
Richard Tyree, Methodist archdeacon of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, wrote of the community at Massies Mill, “It is hard to see that the village will ever make a comeback, but the depths of the human spirit are unfathomable and it may be there will be a resurrection there.”
Meanwhile Olive Kidd, the postmistress of the Massies Mill post office, which disappeared in the flood, also took a religious attitude. Recalling that earlier that summer man had first walked on the Moon, Kidd said, “God didn’t mean for us to set down on the far planets. And He sure let us know quick with this blow.”
Today there are few monuments to the disaster that struck Nelson County almost a half century ago. Interested visitors may find significant newspaper files at the Nelson County Library. The Hurricane Camille Resource Center at Oakland Museum has recorded a significant amount of first-hand accounts from survivors.
No cloud should be without a silver lining. As a result of Camille, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was created, helping to coordinate federal aid to state and local agencies.
About the Author:
Richard Deardoff has served on the Board of Directors for the Brandy Station Foundation, has been named Teacher of the Year for Fauquier County Public Schools twice, and is a former Civil War Trust Teacher of the Year. He and his wife, Suzanne, live in Culpeper County.