Hurricane Camille: Destruction and devastation in Nelson County

Safety in the Storm

(WFXR) — Camille was one of the most devastating hurricanes to make landfall in the United States with wind gusts near 200 mph at her peak and a storm surge of nearly 25 to 30 feet when hit the coast of Mississippi in August of 1969.

The cyclone developed as a tropical wave in the Caribbean Sea and moved rapidly northwest past the southwest tip of Cuba and pushed into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  While the tropical system was still fairly young, the monster hurricane reached wind speeds of around 115 mph on Aug. 15  getting the classification of a Major Hurricane (Category 3) and was well on its way to becoming an intense Category 5 by the afternoon of the next day. On Sunday Aug. 17, Camille was generating wind speeds of nearly 190 mph just outside the eye wall.  

Camille moved inland just east of the town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi about 11 p.m. on Aug. 17 with wind speeds estimated at 175 mph and a storm surge close to 25 feet. Tides were marked between 15 to 32 feet above normal on the east side of the storm’s center. There were 143 fatalities attributed to Camille along the Gulf Coast.

Once inland, the storm weakened rapidly to tropical storm status with gusts reported at 67 mph in inland sections of Mississippi. The tropical system then moved quickly into Tennessee and Kentucky where Camille’s remnants produced rainfall that was beneficial to crops and lawns. Camille’s track then shifted more easterly as it pushed toward the Appalachian Mountains.

Image courtesy: Nelson County Historical Society

This is where all the pieces of the meteorological puzzle came together that galvanized Camille as one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the Commonwealth of Virginia. The storm dropped between 25 to 35 inches of rain on Nelson County overnight on Aug. 19 and into early morning the next day.

It was inconceivable for this storm to regenerate into such a killer at the time but a large pool of moisture along the coastal plains of Virginia and North Carolina just hovered there waiting to be absorbed by the counter clockwise rotation of the remnant hurricane. The actual path was over Roanoke and continued just south of Lynchburg placing Camille in the perfect position to pick up tons of water that was needed for it to redistribute over Nelson County.

Another piece of the puzzle was a stalled out front just to the north of Nelson County that provided a blocking mechanism and helped squeeze out the rain.  The flow of air around the remnant low was able to draw the moisture from southeast to northwest. Meanwhile, the front stopped the northwest progression of the system, while the mountains helped provide moisture to Nelson County.

It is called upslope and is a common meteorological phenomenon in hilly terrain.  Moisture rides up the face of the mountains into the atmosphere, condenses and rains out over the hills.  The front, the tremendous amount of low-level moisture from the plains and the hills were the perfect recipe for disaster. Rain fell at a rate that was described by some meteorologists as the most rain that could possibly fall from the sky at a single point. A large oil barrel was filled with 31 inches of water in less than five hours.

The landscape was overwhelmed, mudslides and landslides reshaped the face of the region. Trees slid down hills at an alarming rate and the sheer power and inertia consumed the region.  The result, in Virginia, was over 100 bridges and railways washed away, 900 buildings destroyed, 114 people died and 37 more were never accounted for as the five hour deluge took Nelson County by surprise. Officially 124 people died, which was one-percent of the 12,000 residents of the county.

Image courtesy: Nelson County Historical Society

Residents say that you could hear the pine trees snapping as the landslides and mudslides devoured large portions of the mountains. Houses were rolled on their sides and swept hundreds of feet off their foundations.

Hurricane Camille was one of the most devastating natural disasters to hit the United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The damage to roads, bridges, railways, homes, and lives was nearly impossible to digest.

The United States government was to establish the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shortly after the catastrophic damage from Camille. It was felt that there was a need to coordinate natural disaster relief, under a single federal agency, that could assist state and local governments.

View a copy of the final report on Hurricane Camille from the National Hurricane Center below.

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