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.
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.
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 http://www.amazon.com/TORN-Paige-Shoaf-Simpson-Jerry/dp/B000NREB82
Roar Of The Heavens by Stefan Bechtel http://www.amazon.com/Roar-Heavens-Surviving-Hurricane-Camille/dp/0806527064
There is also a good section with lots of personal accounts and pictures in Heartbeats of Nelson by Paul Saunders. http://nelsonhistory.com/ http://www.amazon.com/Heartbeats-Nelson-Paul-Saunders/dp/0979114608