It was not the first or the last, but the inundation of waters that visited Waynesboro and the surrounding area will always be remembered as the worst.
Fifty years ago on Aug. 14, 1969, Hurricane Camille formed out in the ocean near Cuba. When it hit Mississippi early on Aug. 18 it was a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 190 mph. The devastation was almost unbelievable.
And then it appeared that the lioness had turned into a kitten. As she moved north from the coast, Camille weakened, then took a sharp right turn, refueled, and tarried over the mountains in Virginia, pulling in moisture that was dumped back to earth as massive amounts of rain.
In just a few hours, literally between sunset on Aug. 19 and sunrise on Aug. 20, Nelson, Augusta, Amherst and Rockbridge counties experienced torrential downpours — around 30 inches of rain — that fell to earth so hard and fast that people who were outside said they couldn’t breathe.
One writer later described the results of that deluge:
“As streams turned into muddy torrents, entire hillslopes liquefied into fast-flowing sheets of mud. Soil, rock, boulders, stands of trees and thickets and shrubs, all manner of creatures, flowed down the mountain. These flows concentrated in hollows where hillslopes converged. Debris jams formed and then explosively gave way. Homes perished. Roads disappeared. Bridges were swept away. Trillions of tons of water and soil and forest consolidated into invisible waves that effectively erased the face of the landscape.”
When the sun rose on Aug. 20, this small geographic spot on the face of the globe was forever altered. More than 150 were dead or missing and all communication between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley was severed. In Waynesboro, the South River overflowed and sent 8 feet of water downtown. In Buena Vista to the south in Rockbridge, 5 feet of water inundated the downtown businesses.
Perhaps the headlines of The News-Virginian on Aug. 20, 1969, said it all: “Most Devastating Flood in History Strikes Waynesboro, County Areas.” The accompanying article noted that the damage in the city would probably exceed $1 million. Eventually it exceeded $2 million (almost $14 million in today’s dollars). Nearly 100 city homes existed as islands surrounded by water, while others, less lucky, had waist-deep water inside the house. The only transportation in the Club Court area was by boat.
“The flood waters rode into the city between 5 and 5:30 this morning [Aug. 20]. By 7 they were beginning to crest and by 8 they had begun to recede slightly in most areas,” noted the front-page article. Some residents of the city were rescued by boat and others were rescued off the roof of their house. A Marine helicopter flew in and landed at Fishburne Military School before taking off again to aid in rescue operations.
Hurricane Camille flooded 25 city businesses and several industries. Crompton had 28 inches of water in the plant. Downtown Leggett had 3 feet of water and Corner Hardware had 4 feet. Mahanes Florist on Main Street reported waist-deep water.
The South River floodwaters rolled into the spinning rooms of DuPont’s textile plant in the city. In addition the plant’s springs and wells were severely compromised. Later, the company newsletter complimented the plant’s “plucky, loyal employees” for helping the cleanup operations that put the factory back in business after several days.
In Augusta County, the communities nestled up against the western slopes of the Blue Ridge were hit particularly hard. Some roads were under 4 feet of water. The Sherando area witnessed “the rampaging flood waters that spilled over the banks of Back Creek.” In the Creekside mobile home park several trailers were swept off their foundations and hurled into each other. There were reports throughout the county of livestock being lost although residents along Back Creek worked to rescue a frightened and very pregnant hog before she gave birth in the flood waters.
In the Cold Springs to Vesuvius area along the Rockbridge County line roads like Route 608 and Route 56 ceased to exist. Senger’s Mountain Lake Camping Resort had to be evacuated as the waters in the flood control dam there continued to rise.
Despite the incredible devastation, miraculously, no one in Waynesboro lost their lives because of the hurricane. Others were not so lucky. Two teenagers, Tracy Cash Jr. and Bobby Groah, were drowned near Vesuvius when the road on which they were driving was swept away. Miraculously a third teen survived by clinging to a tree.
Many perished in the Rockbridge town of Glasgow, including five members of one family. But the largest death toll came in Nelson, where more than 150 were buried under the debris or drowned in the floodwaters as entire mountains slide away and buried the victims for eternity. With 133 bridges washed away and roads no longer in existence, much of the county, just across the ridge from Waynesboro and eastern Augusta County was accessible only by foot or air.
The Aug. 23 issue of the Waynesboro newspaper ran the following headline: “44 Dead, A Hundred Missing Amidst Staggering Nelson County Devastation.” The subhead noted that the scene in the county was one of “stark horror.” With a population of only 11,000 in 1969, Nelson literally lost 1% of its citizenry in just a few hours. Augusta County Sheriff John Kent was the first to alert the world to the Nelson disaster, when he heard the radio distress call made by Nelson Sheriff Bill Whitehead who was isolated after all the bridges were washed out. Kent sent a helicopter up to check the situation and the scene witnessed from the air caused the Augusta sheriff to immediately contact the civil defense office in Richmond.
As the floodwaters receded, the communities joined together in the face of adversity to help their neighbors. Churches created emergency shelters and people brought in clothing and blankets for the flood victims. In Nelson County, the recovery of bodies continued long after the waters receded. Fifty years later some of the missing have yet to be found.
Even now, five decades after Camille, there are those who became restless and worried when the hard rains of a hurricane make their way north from the Gulf Coast, especially if those rains come in late August. And there are those who pause and remember the family members, friends and schoolmates who were gone in the blink of an eye, literally lost between one short sunset and sunrise in the summer of 1969.