Hurricane Camille: Nelson County’s #1 Story
Friday night, 37 years after the great flood 30 miles south of Charlottesville, at least two hundred people packed an auditorium to learn about the county’s defining moment.
The event was held at the Nelson Center just south of the traffic light on US-29 in Lovingston. “Views of Camille: Sights, Sounds, Interpretations” was sponsored by Oakland – the Nelson County Museum of History and by the Nelson County Historical Society. The reception began at 6pm and the program at 7.
I arrived at 6:45. I knew I was in the right place when I saw the crowded parking lot. The auditorium was already filled and all seats taken as people waited for the program to begin as two slide-shows displayed photos of the disaster. There were a few cookies and carrots and one cup of punch left.
To say the least, the turnout was larger than anticipated. Even after the program began and for $10 admission, people kept arriving. People were standing along the walls and the crowd flowed into the hallway.
The first guest speaker was Tom Gathright, retired supervisor of geological mapping, US Department of Mineral Resources.
His presentation must have been the reason for the two slide projectors. One displayed a topographic map with actual flood paths in red of the Lovingston to Woods Mill area, Davis Creek and Rockfish River. The other displayed closeups— actual photos of the devastation cross-referenced to the map.
Gathright explained the mechanics of what happened. Because the ground was already saturated from a wet summer, the soil slid off the smooth bedrock on the hillsides. The debris of trees and boulders flowed into the valleys sweeping away everything.
One photo showed a morass of trees that had been shredded by the churning. Gathright pointed out, what you can’t see is the bodies mixed in.
Nobody knows how much it rained the night of August 19-20, 1969, because all outdoor containers were filled. At one place 31 inches fell—before the barrel overflowed.
Ed Tinsley was a state trooper and assigned to emergency rescue and recovery in Nelson. A few days into the aftermath, he was reassigned from the field to operations dispatch. Though disappointed, as dispatcher Tinsley became a witness to every detail as he relayed communications.
He kept a sporadic reel-to-reel audio journal because he wanted to record some of the history and his reactions. Over the years, because of the enduring significance of the event, he made a few copies. Today the original tape has been lost but one tape copy remains and the content is now on compact disc. Some journal entries were transcribed and published in a Lynchburg newspaper in 1989.
Tinsley stressed the importance of making copies and sharing the records with others so the history can survive and be of interest to future generations.
Judith A. Howard talked about the emotional and spiritual side of the story. She is co-author of Category 5: The Story of Camille – Lessons Unlearned from America’s Most Violent Hurricane.
The clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Ruston, Louisiana, said the effects on people last far longer than the disaster itself. She cited studies that show 3 of 4 survivors of the 9/11 attack continue to be affected, from being on edge to depression to more serious issues.
Since Hurricane Katrina last year, the suicide rate has tripled in New Orleans, said Howard. Another study post-Hurricane Andrew indicated the more you talk about it, the easier it is to move on with your life. She referred to a slogan of the 12-Step program: if you can name it, you can tame it.
The final segment of the program comprised excerpts from three oral histories. Oakland Oral History Program Coordinator, Erin Hughey-Commers, pointed out that the first excerpt was from a lady who had never been asked to tell her story until now.
The lady remembered hearing thunder all night but learned the next morning that it was the sound of boulders crushing everything in their path. It rained so hard water came down the chimneys and leaked throughout the house.
Another lady and her husband returned home after the flood but moved away a week later because of the stench of decomposing animal and human bodies.
There are other witnesses to the havoc of Hurricane Camille. The Nelson County Historical Society hopes you will share them so the story and its lessons are not swept away from memory.