The Courage To Continue

It was the night of August 19, 1969 and the early morning of August 20th that death and destruction intruded the land and lives of Nelson County, Virginia. Hurricane Camille came quickly, and its strength and greed took everything within it’s path. An excess of twenty-five inches of rain in a five hour period of time pounded the land and the hearts of it’s people. These are my people. The people I love and respect. These are people of courage. People of love. People of hope.

My husband’s grandfather’s house.

They clung to life through the night in tree branches and on rooftops swept into an uncontrollable surge of water . They called to family members separated by swift rapids until the only sounds left were one’s own heartbeat and the roar of the water. Daylight brought annihilation of life and land they had never encountered or envisioned in their lifetimes. The morning sun brought with it pain they never knew existed. The light of day brought the realization of the death that had snuck in under the veil of darkness.

Mountains had tumbled down in the night taking with them people, homes, businesses, barns, automobiles, farm animals, and wild life. Nelson County, Virginia was nearly destroyed. Some lost everything they owned. Entire families were wiped out. Survivors were left to grieve spouses, parents, children, friends, and neighbors. It took courage to be a survivor.

Nearly the entire county was without electricity and running water. Those people that had, shared with those who did not. They welcomed them into their homes. They shared their clothes and their food. They loved one another. They prayed for one another. The churches and schools set up command stations and community posts. They gathered supplies and distributed them. They set up operation rescues. It took courage just to live among so much ruin.

And no matter the age of the men, teenagers to the elderly, they all pitched in to do the unthinkable. They trudged through the mud, muck, and debris in search of missing people. The people they loved, their family members, their neighbors, and work associates. Tragedy knows no strangers. For months in horrendous heat and unfathomable stench, they teamed together and they dug, recovered, bagged, and identified bodies. They made in- person calls to the next living relatives. They attended funerals. They held one another as they cried. It took courage to work in those conditions. One hundred-fourteen people were killed and eighty-seven remain missing.

Roads were completely destroyed. Over one hundred bridges and over nine hundred buildings were swept away. Virginia was declared a disaster area as the damages assessed over $100,000,000.The strangers came to help. The Red Cross administered tetanus shots. The Military came bearing tanks of chlorinated water. The Mennonites came pouring in with love and quilts. They brought food, clothing, and tools to work. The women set up posts to hand out clothing and food. They cooked for the volunteers. The men set to rebuilding homes and businesses for the people. Those strangers became our friends. It took courage to be a volunteer.

They did what they had to do. They buried their dead. And salvaged the pieces of their lives. They worshiped God. They cleared their land. They rebuilt their homes. They rebuilt their businesses. Their wounds healed to scars as they tried to go on living. It took every ounce of courage they could muster. And then some. But they did it because they were survivors.

And even now when the heavens bellow, the earth trembles, and the rains come pouring down, it takes courage. It takes courage to remember.

Bare mountains from land slides

End Note: I was barely six years old and about to start first grade when Hurricane Camille hit. I was fortunate that I did not lose anyone I loved. However, I remember the devastation well. I remember the water, the mud and debris, and the smell. The smell of death. The smell of pungent raw earth. The smell of exposure, collapse, and decay. A stench I will never forget. I remember the recurring nightmare of a spinning house in a downpour of rain. I remember getting a tetanus shot. I remember the immediate fear of the “Army men” and the tanks of strange bleach water they offered me to drink. I remember starting school in the Fall and going every Saturday for almost the entire school year. For as little as I actually experienced during this catastrophe, I can only imagine the painful memories of those who endured immeasurable pain and tragic loss. Courageous seems too simple of a word to describe these people. But this is why I don’t look to famous athletes or Hollywood celebrities as my heros…I need look no farther than the people of Nelson County, Virginia. The heart of Nelson is where true courage resides.

Interesting books concerning Hurrican Camille and it’s effect on Nelson County, Virginia:

Torn Land  by Paige and Jerry Simpson   Currently out of print, but can be found through collectors.  Amazon currently has five sellers

Roar Of The Heavens   by Stefan Bechtel

There is also a good section with lots of personal accounts and pictures in Heartbeats of Nelson  by Paul Saunders.        

78 thoughts on “The Courage To Continue

  1. Wow, I’ve lived through hurricanes but nothing can compare with horror and in turn the resilience you describe. Once again SuziCate, you make a story come alive with your words and family photos. It’s a story I won’t forget! Thanks for telling it!

      • I was a young fella, 22 years of age. Lived in Waynesboro and drove a milk truck for a living. Little did we know what was happening just a few short miles away. The school at Rockfish gap was where I delivered milk for 6 weeks to help the citizens of Nelson County. I remember those smells as well, you just can’t forget them. The entire course of the Piney River was changed forever. Tiny towns, as well as all for their citizens, gone. Animal carcasses in trees, 50 feet off the ground……..The devastation was complete and if you know where to look, the scars are still visible today. And to this day, if it begins raining heavily after dark, all of those memories come flooding back. Thank you for your perspective and writing about this once in a life time tragedy..

      • Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.Yes, the scars are very much visible today. On Rt. 29 you can see the bare patches from landslides, but those who don’t know the history probably pay little attention. I think those who witnessed the tragedy carried it with them for a lifetime.

  2. Wow. It always amazes me how people come together after a tragedy. You are such a gripping storyteller, SuziCate. What a talent that you can take memories from this time in your life, mix it with history and tell it with authority.

  3. Wow. Just like Erica said, you make a story come to life. It is such a sad story, but when I read it I feel anything, but beaten down, the WAY you write it I feel sadness, but I sense a pride and a power and a togetherness — a sense of community. My vision is blurred by tears but my heart is soaring at the thought of a community coming together and having MORE than courage.

    Must have been soooo scary—especially at six years old.

    • Thanks CK and Terre, I’ve been contemplating writing about this tragedy for a long time. And I probably would have written about it in a historical, factual, and personal view, but with “courage” as the prompt, it enabled me to tell it from a different perspective.

      • Well Done Suz. I couldn’t stop the emotion and gripping sensations as I read this. We were away during this tragedy, dad was still in the Air Force…I remember how different things were once we moved back home in 1970. I mostly remember the far away looks on the faces of folks we talked with once we started reconnecting with friends and family. Moving times indeed…it does take courage to move through times like these. They are so defining…teaches humility,community and raw grace. Thanks for sharing. Love you.

  4. I know what you are saying, I lost everything 4 years ago in a tornado, but the most important my family and I was not harmed. Everyone was surprised we were not hurt from the look of my home. All I can say is God had angels there to protect us. I am so sorry you had to go through something like that so young. My grandkids still are not over what they saw and went through.

  5. Wow! Amazing post. I’ve witnessed floods and hurricane evacuations (thankfully storms with barks much worse than bites), but never have I seen what you describe. And please, I don’t ever want to.

    What an incredible portrait of courage. Thank you!

  6. Absolutely heartwrenching. Hearing from someone who lived through it, through the eyes of a child, someone connected to the families and the land, makes your account so poignant. What people, families and communities go through and bear all their lives is truly astonishing. Thank you for reminding us of just how perilous life is, and how courageous and kind people can be when circumstances demand it of us.

  7. The closest thing to what you describe that I have experienced are the earthquakes in los Angeles…particularly the Northridge quake in 1994. I remember having this distinct feeling that was were all going to die. I have never felt that before or since.

  8. Very good post Suzi. Yes, that was a scary time. And that bleach water is something that is hard to forget. And having to go to school on Saturdays for almost an entire year. I remember most the roar of the rain beating on the roof and that it was so hard and so much it looked like someone was pouring buckets of water off the roof.

    We were very blessed not to lose anyone close to us.

  9. It’s my first time visiting and I’m so glad I did thanks to FiveForTen!

    Your words capture this tragedy so well. Your retelling makes me feel like I was there. And you are so right, so many people had to muster the courage to help through this devastation. It was more than courage, these people were heroes in the face of this tragedy.

    I’m glad you didn’t lose anyone close to you and that you had the strength to retell the story because it was powerful to read.

  10. Such an incredible story. The aftermath of natural disasters always saddens me, but it always seems to bond many people closer together, helping them find the strength to get through it all.

  11. That kind of devastation is hard to even imagine. And the bravery and stamina of the people is just mind boggling. After the earthquake here of 1989, we saw some terrible things, but nothing to compare to the damage that Camille did. Thanks Suzicate for making it all so alive. We need to remember things like this.

  12. Wow! What an incredible story, and it’s amazing what you remembered given your age.

    Even through chaos and crisis, you tell stories that just leap off the paper (or screen).

  13. What a scary experience. I can’t imagine how you could deal with it at the age of six, needing to see the best and worst that comes out of mankind during catastrophes.

    The people of Nelson County are truly heroes. The fact that they rebuilt instead of leaving and finding homes elsewhere is something extremely admirable – they wanted to right the wrong of the disaster, not run away from it.

  14. Beautifully written, a tribute weaving tragedy and the courage and hope and survival that grow from it. My mom still has her copy of Torn Land. I read it over and over again, ~ we came to Nelson in 1973, and Louisa did not have nearly the rains you guys had. I still cannot drive through without thinking of those who were not found. How heartbreaking for their families. I’d not seen the bottom two photos before. Not an easy topic and you covered it magnificently.

  15. OMG, I was on the edge of my seat reading this, SC!! What an incredible job you did reaccounting this event, because I felt like I was there!

    Having lived in Florida for 20 years, I have been through hurricans, but nothing like this.

    It’s times such as this, that you really see the incredible power and beauty of people coming together, helping one another.

    You’re final sentence said it all….

    “I need look no farther than the people of Nelson County, Virginia. The heart of Nelson is where true courage resides.’

    Thank you for sharing this, dear lady!


  16. Seriously made me cry. It is sad, but it is also comforting to know how many wonderful people there are that reach out, that do what they can when a tragedy strikes.

  17. Amazing post! Tornado’s are the one natural “event” that completely scares the pants off me. We don’t get them out here….

  18. Wow. Your words totally transported me. And those photos, my goodness. Definitely courage.

    My husband lived through a hurricane in his early 20s, and it’s amazing to hear him describe that long day and night riding out the storm… and then the sheer devastation afterward. And maybe that’s why we live in Minnesota!

  19. Beautifully told as always Suzicate. We don’t have hurricanes here but we do have floods and tornadoes. And I’ve seen the devestation left behind firsthand. It’s always tragic and yet the way people come together and go on, renews my faith in the human spirit and in humanity itself.

    The pictures were amazing!


  20. What an amazing story – it is incredible the courage, friendship and consideration for fellow man that is created out of such tragedies. How awful in one sense that you lived through such an ordeal, but in another way how amazing to be part of such a kinship of fellow human beings, showing such courage in the face of disaster

  21. Susan,

    You did a great job with this story! I was only 4, but I remember water being every where, the shots, and debris so high in trees it was unbelievable (even now). It was a tragic event, but you are right, it also shows the resilience, courage, and strength of the people of Nelson.

  22. I agree. Courageous seems like a slighted word to describe the hearts of the people who lived through that tragedy. Those pictures tell a raw and real story in themselves. I don’t think I’m alone in having those awful thoughts from time to time–the ones you can’t seem to stop–about something devastating hitting my life. My train of thought goes from the event to how it would affect me to how I would handle it. There is a picture in my mind of how I want to handle the tough moments in my life–whether catastrophic or not–and I get really down on myself when I fall short of the calm and peace and strength I imagine myself having. But with a community surrounding me, I think anything would be possible. Together. When it’s just me in my home with three boys driving me mad? Devastatingly mad? I don’t fare as well, I’m afraid.

    Beautiful piece, Suzicate.

    • You should try to get one of the books from the library. Intense personal accounts. Absolutely amazing. I have read those acounts over and over. The bravery and resilence of people during a time that help was not readily accessible as it is now will blow your mind. It makes one proud to be part of the human connection.

  23. This is such a powerful piece, and so well told as always. I have never experienced anything like this, but your details helped me imagine just an inkling of what your family and neighbors lived through. It also gives me more perspective on the resilience of the people of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, not to mention the people of Haiti following the earthquake there this winter.

    Thank you for sharing your story, SuziCate.

  24. Thanks for sharing your experience. With the flooding in Nashville in the news, this is very relevant. It is simply amazing what lots of water can do.

  25. This post is so lovely. What a gift you have with words. Thank you for linking up to Five for Ten so that I could have the pleasure of reading those words.

  26. Wow this must have been difficult to overcome. We have landslides here once in a while. Usually after the Fall floods, but not on this scale. Its amazing how we rebuild and move on. Human nature’s grand 😉

  27. I lived in Schuyler {Nelson County} when Camille came through and it was TERRIBLE!!!!! No warnings or chance for people to move to higher ground. A lot of lost lives and love ones came that night, it is a day in history that I WILL NEVER FORGET!!!!!

  28. You’ve told this town and its people’s story so eloquently, Suzi. I just can’t fathom living through that night, being strong enough to build from the ashes of so much ruin. It’s heartbreaking, but also so amazing and inspiring.

    My husband comes from a tiny town called Oakdale in eastern Tennessee what was completely destroyed by a flood in the 50s. The town didn’t recover the way Nelson County did and is now just a smattering of broken down houses and a historical marker. Reading about Nelson makes me want to learn more about what was in towns like Oakdale.

  29. We lived through a neighborhood fire, but it was nothing in comparision to this devestation. I can handle losing posessions, but the thought of losing people is heartwrenching.

    Indeed these were couragous people!

  30. Susan, that was amazing! So true to the facts that it made me tear with the memory of it and the stories that I’ve heard over the years. I was only three, but I have a few flashes of memory. Pure devastation…..

    You are an amazing writer, and thanks so much for sharing this with me.


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  35. Nelson County, Virginia we love.

    The times of mass rain never in the World seen before, soaked ground, and no warnings caused it. As this occurred when we were there it made the USA have a 911 System.

    We lost a lot of kin. You see my Grandaddy Thomas Bland Harvey, Sr. house. He was a 32nd Degree Mason, Knights Templar, and Shriner. His words shall live forever as shown all over the World by the Associated Press ( AP) and many others . ” IT IS GODS WILL! ”

    He had built that house, the US Post Office it smashed , and the house up on the hill in the background most of his children ( my Aunts and Uncle ) were birthed in too.

    He was with Addison Payne , his dad, my uncle , Glenn Payne who rescued him with the water up to porch already ( 49 inches) and they were missing and presumed dead , even broadcast on our then transistor radio..too .. but way later in the day we saw young Addison Payne, Nelson County HS Class President, crossing the waters. He told us they are alive.. Thank GOD!

    My cousin Frank “Tinker” Bryant, Jr. lost all his girls at home and wife. He was hung up in tree which saved him. Thankfully two of his girls were up in New Jersey here at a Methodist location. I think/pray of/for him and his daughters almost every day.

    My Aunt Eleanor Grey Massie across from him over Hatt Creek missed by a landslide by only a few feet coming down Massie mountain . She saw a car going by with headlights on in the night and thought she was dreaming.. All her sons, Jimmy, Randy, Cabel ( Cubby), Richard, and husband Jack made it !

    We were at home, Tempe Wick South, across on the same side of Hatt Creek next to ( Virginia Algonquian ) Opossum Trot as they were but the Massies are up the creek about 5 miles. I had finished building a walking bridge finally across to what had been my Great Grand Mother Harveys house owned by Mr. and Mrs, Saint Campbell. My Mother Mary Lib De Mallie drove Robert Thomas Payne ( Addison’s next oldest brother) up to Jullian Parr Camp to fish which is on the North Fork of the Tye River. It rained over five inches in only half and hour with the ground already soaked. I noticed a giant boulder had moved after my Mother said NO WAY were we going to stay ! We came down Rt 56 towards home stopped in Massies Mill and then at Macs ( Malcom Giles ) Market in Roseland just up from Persimmon Rock and his land and road abuts it. We ate, read, and went to bed.. That night it sounded like a torrent and we wanted to go check our bridge. My mom said NOWAY! We measured the rains that night it was over 38 inches in total. Yes over a square yard of HEAVY rain.
    We were woken by a mooing cow in pour window.. we blinked and wondered who had a cow near .. we heard the river still rushing and my Aunt Loise called over the hill and hollow for Bob to come home quickly.. he left and we followed once we dressed. OMG it looked as if an Ocean of fresh water we could see and all kinds of debris coming down river and creek as Tye River meets Hatt Creek here. Yes over 1 1/2 of water from Jim Pettites hill over to Grandaddy Harvey lands..

    As Grandaddy said (( ITS GODS WILL !!! ))

    GOD Bless all Nelsonians passed and missing

  36. True courage indeed!
    What an ordeal. The pictures are the remnants of something terrible and the words you’ve written really do convey the pain and suffering of everyone involved.

    Not just that though – the compassion. Everyone pulled together, through great adversity.

    Thank you for sharing this very personal story.


  37. Suzi, I don’t remember Camille doing that much devastation in Virginia, and I’m blown away by the tales of courage here. I somehow thought she wreaked her fury out only along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Your post reminded me of the stories I, too, heard — people clinging to branches of trees, people refusing to leave (and having “hurricane parties”, only to perish). My mom told me her dad had a pecan orchard and went outside the next morning — and wept at the destruction. Thank you for setting the record straight — we Americans are more resilient than we give ourselves credit for!

    • The thing about Camille hitting Nelson is it was totally unexpected, no preparations what so ever. It was an anomaly to hover over a central Virginia mountain region. There is so much more I could have added to this post, but the stories are personal and devastating to those involved. It is a time no one who experienced will ever forget.

  38. Suzy Q you never cease to amaze me as well as that great photographer Charles . What a pair you two make. It is nice to know there is so much talent in our family. Love you and Charles very much cuz. Keep up your amazing work.

  39. I get chills just reading this….I remember everything just as you described it above. You are exactly right about one thing…..we were all there for each other! My sister and I had to take our little red wagon with 6 gallon milk jugs to the army tank to get water every night.

  40. Thank you for reposting this. I remember when the rains came, and our family in Amherst County lost no loved ones. After moving to Nelson County, I realized the devastation of that awful flood. Your theme of courage spoke to me.

    • We were fortunate no to lose loved ones, but the memories of the devastation remains. It was many years before I wasn’t petrified of a hard rain; I can’t imagine what those fought to survive continue to go through.

  41. I lived through it I was a child with my family their at Schuyler we watched as things came down the river up in trees and things it was horrible but we survived we were a large family my dad had passed away in 1962 and it was mom and 10 kids but we all survived ,,,,,Thank God ,,,it was a night of devastation we will never forget but as you said with all the love and support of the people for the people We love Nelson County and we lost a lot of Family in that Storm,,,,thank you for this story so well written Beautiful and I tell my kids and grandchildren about it and we go to Schuyler where some of my family still live and love,,,,

    • I’m so sorry for your loss of family. Glad your immediate family survived. I was fortunate not to lose anyone. I lived in the house on the hill above the dam. I remember sitting up in the old barn and watching the roaring water and the debris rolling down the river…it was all surreal.I still go back to Schuyler twice a month to visit my mom.

  42. Thanks for the memories of my devasted hometown & village of Massie’s Mill, Nelson County, VA & the relatives and friends I lost and those who miraculously survived.

    • I am sorry for your loss of family and friends. I am thankful for the miracle of those survivors. I don’t think any Nelson County resident from this time period will ever forget the devastation.

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