Camille's Destruction: Part 1

NELSON COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) — Hurricane Camille was a powerful Category 5 hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast 50 years ago. Forecasters at the time thought the storm was weakening, until it moved into Virginia.

Historical imagery of Hurricane Camille's damage in Nelson County in August 1969

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 inches of rain fell in just eight hours.

Nelson County is a beautiful mountain community nestled next to the Blue Ridge Mountains. On that day, everything changed. It was a disaster like no other: a combination of weather ingredients that changed this area forever.

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.

The water kept rising, eventually spilling over the road.

"He said 'we need to get out of here, because if this whole road bank breaks loose, we are gone.'"

Milton's sister, Iris, was only six at the time and he recalls someone carrying her out of the house.

"I remember we had to put our hands over our face like this, because you just, it was raining so hard you couldn't breathe," said Iris.

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.

"The road was blocked. So we tried to turn around and go back the other way to higher ground, and water was across the road there," said Milton.

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."

But it wasn't a typical 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.

They left the car to try to make it to the road above, but the water came in too fast.

"It went to 6-8 feet deep in a matter of minutes."

At that point, everyone was fighting to keep their head above water.

"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.