Fifty years ago today, Nelson County was hit by a storm of historic proportions – a hurricane that, without warning, claimed 124 lives. More than 25 inches of rain fell overnight, causing slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains to erode.
For the people of Nelson County, August 19, 1969 was like so many other summer days. Before his death in April of this year Bernard McGinnis remembered.
“It was hot, it was humid. 11 o’clock news that night, weather report said rainy and cloudy. Just go to bed, yeah.”
But as they lay in their beds, lightning flashed, thunder echoed through the mountains and in some areas, 31 inches of rain came down in a five hour span:
“It was raining like crazy when we came back, and if you were out in it it was almost like you couldn’t breathe," said Audrey Diane Evans.
" My house is on a hill, and when I stepped out into my yard I had water resting in my yard around my ankles," recalled the late Ed Rothgeb.
"We were scheduled to go to Richmond the next day to visit friends, and I kept saying to my husband, ‘You better go back and get some sleep, or you won’t be able to go on the trip tomorrow,’" said Emily Moxley. "He said, ‘You don’t realize what’s going on here. We’ve got a terrible storm, and the water is coming into the house!’”
Emergency crews were unable to reach desperate families, and to make matters worse, power went out. The phones were still working, and at 2 a.m. the family of 14-year-old Warren Raines got a call, warning them that the nearby Thye River was coming up fast, so he, his parents and five siblings resolved to leave:
“Next door neighbor asked if four of their kids could come with us. His wife was wheelchair-bound, and they figured they’d take a chance at riding it out, but he’d feel better if his kids came with us, so eleven of us got in the family station wagon and tried to leave, and the engine died from the water getting up in the engine.”
They thought it might be possible to walk to higher ground, but as the late Cliff Wood explained, the geographic deck was stacked against them.
“Nelson County starts at 4,000 feet , and it flows downhill to the James River, elevation about 300 feet, and 30 inches of rain falling under those circumstances actually dissolved the mountainsides. Trees broke loose from the ground, and the earth and the rocks tumbled -- rocks as big as automobiles.”
The water rose rapidly, especially when debris created temporary dams that burst. The Raines family was caught in the currents:
“One of the last things I remember was seeing my mother. She was with an older sister of mine, and I told them what I was holding onto wasn’t holding," Warren remembers. "They said ‘Let go, and we’ll catch you.’ They were within 20 feet of me, and when I got to where they were, they were gone, and that was the last I saw of them.”
He and his 16-year-old brother Carl survived by clinging to trees. Lightning was constant – allowing them to watch the destruction of their world:
“I saw entire houses floating by, a lot of automobiles, cattle, logs, telephone poles, just all kinds of things were floating by.”
One hundred and twenty-four people died that night – including Warren’s parents, three siblings, and two of the neighbor’s children. Ironically, their homes survived the flood – the second floors untouched, but the storm had swept away miles of roads, more than 100 bridges and 900 buildings. We spoke with our sources in 2009, on the 40th anniversary of the superstorm -- Warren Raines, Audrey Diane Evans, Walter Scott Evans, and Emily Moxley along with Bernard McGinnis, Cliff Wood, Henry Conner and Ed Rothgeb who have since passed away.
Tomorrow, we’ll report on how the people of Nelson County recovered from Hurricane Camille.