Thursday, August 20, 2009

Day 155/365 Lady Camille

Anyone who has lived in the south, and to some degree along the east coast, knows some ladies (and a few gentlemen) by their first name only: Betsey, Agnes, Rita, Katrina, and once upon a time, Camille.

In August, 1969, Camille came calling at a full Cat 5 strength, stopping in first at Biloxi Mississippi, with winds clocking 200 mph. After virtually wiping Biloxi off the map, Camille moved through the southeast, finally passing over Nelson County, Virginia.

Nelson County is one of those picturesque places, with tree-covered mountains surrounding deep valleys, each connected to the next with winding passes. The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along the northern border, the Appalachian Trail reaches north to south, the Rockfish River runs through the county, and the James River runs along the southern border.

For those who remember "The Waltons", its creator lived in Schuyler, in the eastern section of Nelson County. The show was a collection of his memories growing up in the Virginia mountains during the 1930s up through World War II.

A quick geology lesson is appropriate here. A mountain is a ridge of bedrock, covered by a layer of subsoil (in Nelson County this is primarily a clay layer). Over the subsoil is the actual soil, the part where trees and plants anchor themselves.

On the evening of August 19, in Nelson County, Camille brought rain, with very little wind. Overnight, into the daylight hours of August 20, the rain continued. Nelson County received just shy of 39 inches of rain, in 3-5 hours.

Unfortunately it had been a rainy summer, and the ground was already saturated.

It was, in fact, so saturated that when Camille brought her 39 inches of rain, the rivers flooded. It rained so hard that there were reports of birds drowning in trees as cows floated down creeks, while survivors had to cup their hands over their mouth and noses to be able to breathe.

And then - the mountain slid.

Actually, everything on top of the bedrock slid. The trees, the plants, the roots, the soil, the clay subsoil - everything that lay on top of the bedrock. Any slope with more than a 35% grade gave way to an avalanche of debris: trees, boulders, mud, brush, and anything it encountered on its way down.

In Nelson County, Camille killed 123 people, leaving some families with only one or two surviving members.

In Nelson County alone, the flooding washed out 133 bridges, leaving some communities not only completely cut off from assistance, but completely underwater. The flooding downstream cut off all communication between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley.

In Virginia overall, Hurricane Camille destroyed 313 houses, 71 trailers, 430 farm buildings, killed 153 people overall (mostly from blunt trauma incurred during the mountainslides), affected 3,765 families statewide, with the total economic bill amounting to just under $141 million dollars (those are 1969 dollars, in 2009 dollars it's around $850 million).

If the Nelson County damage isn't enough, in 1969, when Camille came ashore in Mississippi as a full-strength category 5 hurricane, she brought a 28 foot storm surge, sustained winds of 190 mph (with gusts at 200 mph), and she caused the Mississippi River to literally flow backwards for 125 miles, then back up an additional 120 miles all the way to Baton Rouge.

Today, when we drive up Hwy 29 on our way to Washington D.C., through Nelson County, the bare rock mountainsides are still visible.

They might as well have "Camille was here" spraypainted across their face.

1 comment:

  1. Pretty much my earliest childhood memory was driving through Nelson County after Camille. It was horrible.