Nelson County, Virginia
By Woody Greenberg
If you ask Cliff Wood, who was a county supervisor in August, 1969, what has stayed with him in the 40 years since Hurricane Camille devastated parts of Nelson County, he struggles to put it into words – but it is clear it is admiration and respect for the individuals who stepped up to the crisis. “They had to show up on the job…they knew they had to show up…to do what they had to do…you were asked and so you went.” Wood, who himself stepped up as vice chairman of the board of supervisors and coordinator of civil defense, is referring to the state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, highway workers, utility workers, railroad men and others who, with no thought of compensation for overtime, worked 16 hour days, seven days a week, looking for survivors, finding bodies, rebuilding roads and bridges, restoring electrical and phone service in the days and weeks following Camille.
One of those workers, Bobby Purvis, who was with C&P Telephone Co., gets pretty emotional remembering how Camille revealed the true character of individuals he knew. “There was a fellow…he’s dead now, a Charlottesville man who delivered milk for Monticello Dairy. He told his people (at the dairy) that the people in Nelson County had no milk or water,” Purvis remembers, his voice cracking with emotion. “He drove almost to Richmond and worked his way back to Julian Stevens’ service station (in Lovingston) with milk and water for Nelson County. Another hero…”
Purvis also chokes up remembering Julian Stevens, his father-in-law, who on the day after the flood could not get past Dillard Creek by car and so walked across a mountain to get to his family in Freshwater Cove. “There was destruction everywhere,” Purvis remembers, He had a pregnant wife and a 13-month-old son and they needed milk and lamp oil. He walked back to Lovingston with Stevens in boots with no socks, realized he was needed on the job to restore phone connections in Lovingston, hitched a ride on a helicopter back to his home to deliver supplies and put on work clothes.
“I stayed away (working) for seven days…it took three days before we could restore connectivity” to the outside world. The phone company had decreed no one could work after 7 p.m. because one worker had almost drowned in a sink hole he had been unable to see as it got dark. So Purvis worked in the evenings as a volunteer, using a power saw to cut up trees that blocked the streets of Lovingston.
Russell North, who works for the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, appreciates what the utility workers brought to the crisis. “They were used to working 24-hour shifts. They worked 12- to 14- hour days, long hours to get the services back…they were used to hard labor. It shows the resilience of those individuals, that they helped Nelson County to recover rapidly.”
That resilience can be seen in the actions of Jimmy Wood, then a CVEC employee who was called out to restore power from Rt. 250 to Martins Store in the Rockfish Valley. Roads had washed out and Woods and his co-workers helped getting bodies out of the mud and debris before getting back to the task of restoring power.
As grim as Camille was, there were moments of humor. Wood tells about an incident involving the late Jimmy Gardner, then a superintendent for CVEC. Gardner had supervised line crews since the co-op started bringing electricity to the county in 1938.
“A helicopter was landing on 29 and jerked a power line down. It disconnected the co-op office. We put it back up. The next day a copter knocked it down again. Gardner saw a State Police car sitting on the downed wire. So he goes over and jerks the back door open to tell the man inside to get the hell out of the way. The Governor (Mills Godwin) replied, ‘Can I help you?’ We teased Gardner for a long time about jerking the door open on the Governor.” And Purvis recounts how his mother-in-law and wife hung his infant son’s diapers up to dry, attracting the attention of helicopters pilots who thought it was an SOS signal.
But memories of Camille are always tinged most heavily with sadness. Marvin Crank, then of Appalachian Power Co., had been called out the night of Camille from his home in Shipman to deal with an outage in Variety Mills. He started through Oak Ridge but Ruckers Run blocked his way. He went east on Rt. 56 to Red Apple Orchard, but again could not get through. He went to Lovingston, passing the old ABC store that was next to what was normally a small creek and saw bottles floating in raging water. He turned back and went to the post office and sat in his truck. “It was like the world was coming to an end,” he says.
He saw a truck stranded on U.S. 29. He worked with a construction worker from English Construction, the contractor for the new 29 by-pass that had just been completed, to try to help the stranded motorist. “We needed a five-gallon bucket over our heads to breathe.” The English Construction worker used a motor-grader to get to the stranded truck and tow it to safety. Crank found he couldn’t get back to Shipman so he went north on U.S. 29 and just north of the gap encountered a house in the middle of 29. Later, he was enlisted by the helicopter crews to help identify bodies. He remembers flying down to Bremo Bluff in Fluvanna County with the Rev. John Gordon, the Calvary Baptist Church minister who coordinated the rescue and recovery effort. An African-American woman from Massies Mill, whom Crank had known, had been washed all the way down the Tye River to the James and it was her body that Crank and Gordon identified. “It brought tears to my eyes,” he recalls. He spent four days on loan from APCO performing the sad duty of trying to identify the dead.
There are dozens, even hundreds of stories, of extraordinary responses to an overwhelming crisis. At first, most people had no idea how badly the county had been hit by Camille. As Purvis puts it, recalling how Camille sent “buckets of water coming down the chimney…and lights and phones going out, we just didn’t know the magnitude of what had happened.” When he went out in the morning, he says he was “awestruck.” There were “fingers of water everywhere, trees down, a trailer sitting in a maple tree. ..I was thinking about me, my family. It didn’t dawn on me about the rest of the county.” Not until later when he and many others began helping to put it back together.
The Nelson County Museum of History, will hold a Remembrance of Camille on Thursday, Aug. 20 at 7 p.m. at Nelson County High School. A slide show of rarely seen photos of Camille will begin the Remembrance, followed by the Fortune Family Singers, a reading by the Rev. John Gordon of the names of those lost, stories of survival by Curtis Matthews and Colleen Stevens Thompson, remarks by Cliff Wood on how individuals responded, and music by Pat Ritchie. A social hour will follow with education exhibits and refreshments. The event is free and open to the public.
There will also be a Camille 40th Remembrance in the Rockfish Valley the day before the high school event. It’s Wednesday August 19th – 10AM at The Rockfish Valley Trail head, at the Route 151 bridge, just south of Nellysford, Virginia. The ceremony includes; Story of the August 1969 tragedy in the Rockfish Valley through the eyes of those on the scene during search and recovery. Exhibit of local photos from 1969 and scrap book kept by John Phillips who was VDOT resident engineer. Early Swift author of “The Day the Rains Came” will also be present.