Why The Disaster of the Century Hit Nelson County

Aug 23, 2019

This week Nelson County is marking the 50th anniversary of an epic storm that dropped at least 25-30 inches of rain on the Blue Ridge Mountains in a single night, causing floods and landslides that killed 150 people statewide.  Forecasters were caught by surprise, but today meteorologists say the disaster was caused by several forces converging on a single area. 

Davis Creek and other waterways overflowed their banks and rushed through Nelson County, taking out more than 100 bridges and more than 900 buildings.
Credit Nelson County Historical Society

When residents of Nelson County tuned into the evening news on August 19, 1969, they heard an unexceptional weather forecast according to Jeff Halverson, a professor of meteorology at the University of Maryland – Baltimore County.

“There was no forecast for any type of flood," he recalls. "The weather bureau at the time simply stated there will be showers tonight, clearing in the morning.”

Without today’s technologies and forecasting models, they could not predict what would actually happen that night.  The trouble began on August 16th when a hurricane made landfall near Biloxi, Mississippi.

“What a lot of the country knows about Camille is that it was a category five storm, that it hit the Gulf Coast, and that is where a lot of that damage occurred," Halverson says. "The 26-foot storm surge was a record storm surge.  About 150 people died during landfall, and I think that’s the story that kind of sticks with people.”

But Camille continued north and then east toward the Blue Ridge Mountains where Halverson says it combined with other forces to produce torrential rains.

“A lot of it was the mountains and what was left of that energy coming over, and a lot of it was incredibly humid air that was in place over central Virginia.," he explains. "There was moisture pulled off the Atlantic as well.  There was a weather front that dropped down from the north and stalled, and there was energy in the jet stream coming over to create the perfect efficient rain machine for eight hours.”

Streams and rivers quickly overflowed.  Had Creek, for example, is usually about a foot deep and twelve feet wide, but Camille produced a raging torrent 30 feet deep and a quarter of a mile wide with white caps seven to eight feet high.  Houses and roads, people and their animals were swept away – with some debris turning up in the Chesapeake Bay.  

Today, meteorologists could warn people of a coming catastrophe, and Halverson says they might have to.

“This type of event could happen anywhere between the Mason-Dixon line south into the Carolinas," says Halverson. " Perhaps at the time this was perceived as a once in a thousand year storm, but keep in mind we’ve got global warming. You know the stage is set. Anywhere along the side of the Blue Ridge that faces the Atlantic is really a set-up.  We go back to 1995 – this big flood up in Madison County.  That was on the east slopes of the Blue Ridge.  That was Atlantic moisture.  Now it wasn’t a hurricane.  It was a really intense cluster of thunderstorms, but 20-plus inches in a few hours, that was approaching that type of Camille event."

He also notes a growing population in rural areas like Madison and Nelson Counties. 

" Look at the development up and down 29!  People want to build in the wilderness.  They want to be in those mountains.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but you have to understand there’s vulnerability when you do that."

Fortunately, Nelson County is better prepared for weather emergencies, with residents getting text messages and robocalls in the event of flash flood warnings, and the historical society hopes to raise public awareness of what happened here fifty years ago. 

It’s hoping to build a small museum with interactive exhibits. Woody Greenberg says there’s still strong interest in the subject here and nationwide.

"When we put anything up on Facebook we get 6,000-11,000 hits, and when I look at where the hits are coming from, they’re coming from all over the United States. There are plenty of people who don’t know how deadly inland hurricanes can be, and that they even occur."

To raise money for the museum, the Nelson County Historical Society is selling a book with more than 150 photographs of the destruction caused by Camille.