Hurricane Camille, a look back 53 years later

Hurricane Camille moved into Virginia and across the mountains in August of 1969. 6-31" of rain fell in 6-8 hours.
Published: Aug. 18, 2020 at 4:57 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 18, 2022 at 4:22 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) -It’s now been 53 years, since one the most powerful hurricanes ever to strike the United States. Hurricane Camille, the category five hurricane struck the Gulf Coast on August 17, 1969.

The storm moved up through Tennessee and brought tropical rains as it made the right turn into Virginia. What made it worse, Camille met up with a cold front. Those two atmospheric powers together in addition to the mountainous terrain, enhanced the rainfall in addition to the powerful jet stream overhead. It’s also important to note that the cold front did not stall out. Because the jet stream was fast moving, the front could not have stalled out. What happened was like a conveyor belt of continuous heavy thunderstorms for several hours.

As people in the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountain communities were going to bed on the night of August 19, 1969, the unimaginable happened. Ten to thirty one inches of rain fell in just eight hours. We will never know if more rain fell, there were no automated rain gauges like they are today. The large barrels that collected 31″ of rain were topped out at 31″. It’s likely that more fell but we will never know for sure.

Residents of Nelson County awoke terrified, to rising flood waters. Massies mill was almost completely destroyed.

The intense rain was described as a “massive waterfall” and Downtown Waynesboro was under eight feet of water from the South river.

Milton Harris was 17 years old at the time of the storm. He recalls the rain as it got heavier on that Tuesday night. The Harris family lived along Muddy Creek in Nelson County.

“My father kept saying we need to keep an eye on the creek,” said Harris. ”He said ‘we need to get out of here, because if this whole road bank breaks loose, we are gone.’”

The whole family piled in the car to try to make it to their church down the road. The church was on a hill, but they quickly faced problems on the short drive there.

Their car stalled in the middle of Route 29. They were seven people stuck in a car all night, as the water rose around them. They had to nervously wait and hope for the rain to stop. The lightning was so vivid that they could see the destruction happening all around them.

Both recall how intense the lightning was during the storm.

"I remember the lightning was fierce, it just lit it up like daylight," Iris said.

“The lightning didn’t flash, it just stayed lit,” said Milton. ”I remember seeing trailers on their side, actually had tumbled over, and I remember seeing seeing logs float by,” said Iris.

When the storm was over and daylight came, it was a shocking scene of complete devastation. The Harris family survived the night, but in Massies Mill, another family was not as lucky.

Warren Raines described the Sunday when the hurricane made landfall on the Gulf Coast.

"It just so happened, that the Sunday before this happened, that I was watching the news, not knowing that we were going to be hit two days later," said Raines.

Hurricane Camille moved from the Gulf coast to Virginia by Tuesday evening. ”My father and I we were on our front porch, just watching it rain, and the storm going on — just the normal storm.”

After midnight, a phone call woke up Warren Raines and his family. Massies Mill was flooded. The Raines family evacuated their home, with four neighbor children, trying to make it to another neighbor's house on a hill nearby.

Raines remembers how fast the water rose. ”We didn’t get 10 feet and the engine died out, water killed the engine,” he said. ”It went to 6-8 feet deep in a matter of minutes.”

“I hollered to my mother, I said I’m losing my grip, she said ‘let go, we’ll catch you.’ So I let go. When I got to them, they were gone.”

Soaking wet and cold, Warren was able to cling to a willow tree, holding on for dear life. ”Whole homes were floating by, one came close to me: a whole house. Cows, logs, automobiles.”

Amazingly, both Warren and his brother Carl survived that terrible night. Once the sun came up, they were rescued.

“The sad part about it was, the upstairs of our house was fine. If we’d had stayed there, we’d have been fine.” Warren and Carl lost both parents and three siblings. Two of the four neighbor children were also killed.

"We went on and had the funerals at the church, it was something to see, four caskets lined up inside the church. It was more than anybody could stand."

His youngest sister's body was found a few weeks after the storm along the James River.

In Nelson County, 124 lives were lost. Thirty-two people have never been found. Overall, the county lost one percent of its population. More than 20 people were also killed in Rockbridge County. Across Virginia, 153 people died from the storm.

Waynesboro also suffered massive flooding and nearly 300 people had to be rescued. No lives were lost in Augusta County.

This is a date in 1969 Lovingston resident Beth Goodwin said she never forgets.

"Unless you lived it or unless you were here, you couldn't imagine such a thing," said Goodwin. "There was nothing that gave us any indication of what was to come."

She remembers it was rainy on that day like it had been most of the summer. ”The whole summer had been green,” said Goodwin. “We hadn’t had many dry spells with no rain.”

What she did not know at the time was the devastation unfolding in the Tyro area of Nelson County, where her parents lived. Photographs show tiny creeks becoming raging rivers, and houses knocked off of their foundations and swept away.

Miraculously, Goodwin’s parents survived, but she did not receive the news until hours later.”The people who went up there to rescue people came back that Wednesday night to let us know they were alright,” said Goodwin. “That was the first we knew they were alright.”

“Camille was kind of a watershed moment for Nelson County,” said Woody Greenberg, of the Nelson County Historical Society. Greenberg is one of the volunteers at the historical society who helps keep track of Camille’s history.

He said zoning was one of the biggest changes during the storm’s aftermath. ”It marked something of a turning point in how people thought about land use and where you should or shouldn’t build houses,” said Greenberg.

Goodwin says it is memories of the people who helped the small community rebuild she cherishes the most.

"The Mennonites, the rescue squads, and the communities surrounding us and how they came to our aid," said Goodwin.

Anne Witte of the Virginia Division of Mines, Minerals and Energy has scanned the area with lidar, ground penetrating radar. She has now counted more than 5,000 landslides from the storm.

The Nelson County Historical Society has a display of photos and information on the disaster in their museum. They also have a book that was published for the 50th commemoration on the disaster.

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