August 19th, 2009
Nelson County is known for its picturesque scenery, rolling hills, and winding streams. Some would call it a perfect snapshot of rural Virginia. But 40 years ago today the picture totally changed.
Local historian Paul Saunders says, "My wife with seven young children was running around and I could hear her say "Paul look at it raining, look at it raining." I could hear the pots tingling in the hall where she was emptying water that had come down the chimney." Storm after storm rolled through Nelson County that Tuesday night. Up to 31 inches of rain, and much of that in just a five hour period.
Nelson County Deputy Sheriff Leo Pugh says, "The water in that little creek was up probably three feet in the phone booth sitting in the parking lot." As the rain continued to pour down overnight the usually quiet rivers and streams became walls of water. The Rockfish River rose 27 feet and flooded its banks. Virginia State Police Dispatcher, Roy Massie says, "(He) saw two tractor trailers go down Rockfish River. They are swapping ends, end over end, not rolling."
All of the rain loosened soil and caused it to peel off the steep mountains. The mudslides toppled trees and cleared mountain sides. "There was debris, and rocks, and sticks, and logs, everything else around." says Pugh. The mudslides destroyed homes and carried others downhill. Pugh adds, "And just beyond the gap there was a house sitting across 29. It had slid off the bank up on the right."
As more and more rain fell that night the situation only got worse. Massie says, "I went home and had a prayer, that was all I could do."
As the sun rose Wednesday morning the situation was much worse than many people realized. Saunders says, "They say Brian can't find all of his family. They say Adams has been out in a boat getting people out of trees" Hurricane Camille took the lives of 124 people in Nelson County, destroyed 133 bridges and cut off all communication between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley. A stretch of Route 29 became Lovingston airport, one of the only ways to get supplies into the area. The rainfall and total destruction of Camille has yet to be surpassed in Virginia and will be imprinted in the minds of locals for a lifetime.
Virginia State Trooper Rodney Roach says, "I just didn't realize the magnitude of what was happening at the time. It took a while for it to sink in. It was a terrible experience, I know that.”
(Thank you to Woody Greenberg from Oakland, the Nelson County Museum of History for letting the Charlottesville Newsplex use some amazing pictures and home video.)
Thursday, August 20th, a Camille remembrance program will be held at Nelson County High School at 7:00 pm.
We welcome your comments on this story.