Hurricane Camille did not hit Virginia’s Nelson County 50 years ago this month.
You may think that statement rewrites history or diminishes an epic disaster. It does neither. Rather, it should make us all pause about what is possible under certain circumstances from something less than a full-fledged hurricane this far inland.
Camille had quit being a hurricane more than 24 hours before it arrived over central Virginia, where the remnant circulation’s interaction with a stationary front, mountainous terrain and renewed inflow from the Atlantic Ocean unleashed torrents of pent-up tropical moisture on a small section of central Virginia on Aug. 19-20, 1969, creating a flooding and mudslide catastrophe the likes of which our commonwealth had not seen before and has not seen since.
The designation “hurricane” is entirely based on wind speed around a warm-core, closed circulation. Once a tropical cyclone’s winds drop below 74 mph, it is no longer a hurricane. Camille didn’t have the winds required for being called a “hurricane” when it got to Virginia 50 years ago this month, but it had densely packed tropical moisture waiting to be poured out.
Hurricane Camille did not hit Nelson County any more than Hurricane Juan hit the Roanoke Valley in 1985, when the Roanoke River rose more than 5 feet above any previously observed level and 10 lives in and around the valley were swept away, none directly by the river itself. But, as with Camille, the remnants of Juan interacted with a stationary front and mountainous terrain to create the Roanoke Valley’s landmark natural disaster.
Juan’s remnants dumped more than 6 inches of rain in a day and more than 10 inches over five days on Roanoke. By jaw-dropping comparison, Camille’s remnants are known to have dumped more than 20 inches in less than 12 hours on some parts of Nelson County, and suspected to have dumped as much as 3 feet.
When National Hurricane Center officials came through Roanoke on storm-tracking planes with its East Coast Hurricane Awareness Tour in May, the center’s director, Ken Graham, referred to “Hurricane Justa” — or “it’s just a Category 1.” He was worried about people dismissing concerns that “just a Category 1” can be deadly, despite the enormous inland death tolls of storms like Agnes in 1972 and last year’s Florence, both the weakest category of hurricane based on wind speed at landfall.
Camille in 1969 was no “Justa.” With the addition of Michael last fall, upgraded after further analysis, Camille was one of four Category 5 hurricanes, with winds topping 156 mph, that have made landfall in the United States.
Michael’s remnants were bad enough in this area last October. Hurricanes, whether Category 5 or Category 1, don’t just suddenly dissipate once they make landfall, and can carry the threat of gusty winds, tornadoes and especially flash flooding far inland, long after they quit being hurricanes.
We should think of Camille as a two-part disaster, each similarly deadly, killing more than 100 in both Virginia and along the Gulf Coast (exact numbers vary by source). Depending on where one lives in the nation, one area or the other often gets forgotten, although neither is in any way less tragic than the other.
First came Hurricane Camille, the Category 5 monster that leveled just about everything on the Mississippi Gulf Coast with sustained winds of at least 175 mph and a storm surge three stories high in some places.
Then came Camille’s “post-hurricane” second act, which included losing almost all of its wind, passing over multiple states spitting out only moderate amounts of rainfall, and then, curiously — and catastrophically — dumping enormous torrents on Nelson County and adjacent localities in central Virginia, with little or no advance warning.
Hurricane Camille’s Mississippi Gulf Coast devastation was repeated and even exceeded in some cases by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Let’s hope it’s much longer before post-hurricane Camille’s mountain deluge is repeated or exceeded.
Weather Journal appears on Wednesdays.