It was over.
It was over and didn’t have anything to do with us.
Everybody said so. The front page of The Roanoke Times on Aug. 19, 1969, detailed the devastation on the Gulf Coast from what the Associated Press called “the worst hurricane to ever hit America’s mainland.” Meteorologists might quibble with that assessment — an unnamed storm in 1935 technically was more intense — but there was no quibbling over what Camille had done in Mississippi: “100 dead, 2,000 hurt in hurricane,” The Roanoke Times headlined. And then there was this: “Camille’s final total estimated at 150-200.”
There it was. This was somebody else’s problem. The official forecast said so, too: “Various with scattered showers and thundershowers.”
The Associated Press also reported that President Nixon’s new Supreme Court nominee, Clement Haynesworth, was expected to be confirmed.
Those who know their history know that weather and politics are two things that can be very unpredictable.
That night, the warm and wet remnants of the fast-moving Camille ran headlong into a cold front and stalled over the Blue Ridge Mountains —Rockbridge County to the west and Nelson and Amherst counties to the east. Some science happened, but this is what really matters: The clouds that once were Camille emptied themselves at torrential rates. Some places saw 12-20 inches of rain wrung out of the skies over just 3-5 hours. The official maximum was 27 inches. The key word there is “official.” Some unofficial estimates put rainfall at 31 inches in just a few hours — so much rain that birds drowned in tree tops and the mountains simply melted into mud, swallowing whole communities alive. The National Weather Service at the time simply said there was so much rain that it was “the probable maximum rainfall which meteorologists compute to be theoretically possible.” Nobody was expecting this. Nobody.
Just after midnight, the South River near Vesuvius jumped out of its banks so fast that it swept a car with three teen-aged boys off the road. Bobby Groah, 18, and Tracy Cash, 15, were gone. The lone survivor, 16-year-old Marty Brooks, clung to a tree through the awful night. They may have been the first victims of the storm but were not the last.
In Buena Vista, the Maury swept through downtown, a wall of water six feet deep. First the power lines came down; “the electricity popped like shotguns going off,” one woman said. Then the power went out completely. It was 3 a.m. and nobody could see a thing. But they could hear it — the sound of rushing water and things crashing into houses, knocking some off their foundations. Some 1,000 cars in Buena Vista were swept away. So was “an entire lumber mill” whose timbers became water-borne battering rams.
Downstream lay Glasgow, where the Maury and the James came together. There, the two rivers rose 30 feet — 30 feet! — in just a few hours. The rivers surged from their banks and kept rising. At 4:10 a.m., Chess Godsey, owner of Chess’ Restaurant, saw that the water was still 60 feet away. “In ten minutes, it was coming through the back door of the restaurant. Then, minutes later, I was able to get out. That water rose a good five feet in less than 10 minutes.”
Families who lived close to the rivers sought refuge with those who lived further away, and found that even that wasn’t enough. The Hayes family took in the Rions. In the morning, rescuers found 7-year-old Myra Rion holding onto a pile of debris downstream. She was the only one left. The Clark family in Cornwall lost eight members. In all, 23 people in Buena Vista and Rockbridge County died that night — and that’s not even the part of the storm people remember most.
The worst of the storm hit on the other side of Blue Ridge, in Nelson County. Mountainsides collapsed under the weight of the storm. People said it sounded like dynamite exploding, as rocks and trees all came crashing down. Whole communities simply disappeared under mud. So did motorists on U.S. 29 who had the misfortune to be passing through that night. Those who fled their houses said it was raining so hard they found it hard to breathe; some put buckets over their head in a desperate attempt to get some air. One man fled his house only to see it float past him a few minutes later. Other accounts are more harrowing: The child washed from a parent’s arms. The woman who clung to her bed as the water carried it along, her husband two children already gone. The house knocked from its foundation, tumbling down the river while its occupants screamed for help. Whole families died together; the Huffman family alone lost 21 members. The official death toll for Nelson County remains in dispute — but certainly more than 120. The state’s historical marker says that overall, 114 people were known to have died in Hurricane Camille and 37 were never found, their bodies buried forever under mud. That’s 151, although other sources say 156. Nobody really knows how many people were driving along U.S. 29 that night and were never heard from again when the mountains slid on top of them.
Days after the storm, rescuers were still finding survivors holding on in tree tops. How strong was the water? One body was found 41 miles away; a post office safe turned up 50 miles away. The waters ripped the organ out of Grace Episcopal Church in Massies Mill and washed it all the way to Buckingham County. A grim Gov. Mills Godwin visited the scene and called it “the most devastating catastrophe in my knowledge in Virginia.” There were more horrors to come in the days ahead: Bulldozers brought in to clear away the debris sometimes unearthed the bodies of entire families — in some cases, their own relatives. A Virginia Tech student helping one of the rescue teams found the body of Miss Nelson Teen, who had been his date at the Tech Ring Dance that spring.
In the half-century since, the storm has been memorialized in both art and architecture — books, songs and historical programs here, monuments, markers and memorials there. A stained glass window in one church depicts Noah in the midst of the Biblical flood with the reminder that “Noah found Grace in the eyes of the Lord.”
Most of that has been in Nelson County, which suffered so severely as to obscure the loss of life in Buena Vista and Rockbridge County. Those casualties alone would have been staggering in its own right. Surely those victims deserve remembering, too. Fifty years later, where is their memorial, except in memory?