Devastation in Nelson County (photo from Nelson County Historical Society)In August of 1969, the intense Category 5 winds of Hurricane Camille blasted the state of Mississippi. Researchers can only estimate the maximum sustained winds because the storm destroyed every piece of wind-recording equipment in the region. Later analysis showed sustained wind speeds of roughly 175 m.p.h. and a storm surge of nearly 25 feet.

You might think people in the mountains of western Virginia wouldn’t have as much to fear from this storm as those living in Mississippi. But the storm killed nearly as many people in the mountains as it did on the coast, and the wind played virtually no role.

Disaster in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Two days after making landfall in Mississippi, Camille had dropped from a Cat 5 hurricane to a mere tropical depression. Rains diminished. As the storm moved north and east through Kentucky, areas received only 1-2 inches of rain. But when the storm hit the Appalachian Mountains, it began to change rapidly. Within a few hours, rains turned torrential and the band of thunderstorms extended in a 50-mile wide path. On the western slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Camille dropped more than 10 inches of rain. As the storm continued over the mountains onto the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge, it dropped 28 inches of rain in eight hours—over three times more than had ever been recorded in the state and matching meteorologists predictions of the greatest amount of rain theoretically possible. Flash floods and landslides turned the valleys into death traps. The water essentially caused the mountains to melt.

The Tye River Runs Backward

Two houses collided in the floodwaters of Hurricane Camille (photo courtesy of Nelson County Historical Society)There were reports of 31 inches of rainfall along the Tye River. These amounts were never verified, but that was partially due to the fact that most rain gauges were washed away and the fact that the rainfall exceeded the capacity of the gauges that survived. But the river got so much water that it flowed backward for several hours. Families throughout Nelson County tried to escape only to be swept away, and many were never found. 124 people were killed in the mountain flood, either by drowning or blunt force trauma from being hit by debris. There were virtually no injuries. People either escaped unharmed or they died.

The next morning, some people had no idea how bad the disaster was. One woman called to say that she couldn’t make it in to work because there was a house in the middle of the road and her boss thought she was making it up.

James River State Park

Tye River at James River State Park (photo by Kate Dolan)Where the Tye River empties into the James River is now the site of a state park. The farms that dotted the land and moonshine stills hidden in the woods are being replaced by wineries and microbreweries and tourism is becoming the area’s biggest business.

We learned about the killer mountain hurricane and the river that flowed backward while we were camping in James River State Park. The convergence of the two rivers is peaceful and serene. It’s hard to imagine the devastation that took place in 1969. The storm prompted some changes in disaster management, and communication systems are better now than they were 50 years ago. But the unpredictable change and ferocity of the storm reminds us that the forces of nature can never be tamed and should never be underestimated.

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You can learn more about the effects of the mountain hurricane from these sources:

 

I wrote about a hurricane at sea in my first book, Langley’s Choice. I have the beginnings of a 1930s North Carolina mountain story in my “to be written” files and now I’m going to have to research weather issues from the era and see what kinds of issues they faced. The weather is often a far too benevolent feature in my stories.