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40 Years Later : Nelson Remembers Hurricane Camille This Week : 8.17.09

[ 10 ] August 17, 2009 |
Photos By Brower York : ©1969-2009 www.nelsoncountylife.com : Destruction in 1969 from Hurricane Camille as seen through the lens of photographer Brower York. Click any photo to enlarge.

Photos By Brower York : ©1969-2009 www.nelsoncountylife.com : Destruction in 1969 from Hurricane Camille as seen through the lens of photographer Brower York. Click any photo to enlarge.

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.

Complete roadways were washed away by the devastating 1969 hurricane that hit Nelson County, 40 years ago.

Complete roadways were washed away by the devastating 1969 hurricane that hit Nelson County, 40 years ago.

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…”

Photo courtesy of Nelson County Museum of History : Bobby Purvis, a former telephone company worker, emotionally recalls the days following Hurricane Camille. He and others took part in a panel discussion on Camille.

Photo courtesy of Nelson County Museum of History : Bobby Purvis, a former telephone company worker, emotionally recalls the days following Hurricane Camille. He and others took part in a panel discussion on Camille.

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.

Traffic being diverted by state police at Route 6 & 151 in the Martins Store area.

Traffic being diverted by state police at Route 6 & 151 in the Martins Store area.

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.

Relief helicopters line up along Route 29 in 1969.

Relief helicopters line up along Route 29 in 1969.

“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.

Photo Courtesy of Nelson County Museum of History : Marvin Crank, a former Appalachian Power Co worker, talks about his firsthand experiences during Hurricane Camille.

Photo Courtesy of Nelson County Museum of History : Marvin Crank, a former Appalachian Power Co worker, talks about his firsthand experiences during Hurricane Camille.

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.

Rescue and highway officials stand on the other side of a highway bridge totally washed away by Hurricane Camille.

Rescue and highway officials stand on the other side of a highway bridge totally washed away by Hurricane Camille.

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.

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  1. Mary Glass says:

    I was only 6 years old and getting ready to start the 1st grade of school when Camille Hit. My grandmother called from Newport News to see if we were all okay. It had been all over the news and we had no idea what had happened until she called us. I remember going to Rockfish Elem and helping my Mom set up tables with food, clothing and what ever else people brought in for those who had lost everything. But the one memory that sticks out the most is a little girl that started school the same time I did and how she cried and cried she had lost just about all her family in Camille. I can remember my Mom telling me to go and try to talk to the little girl and see if I could get her to stop crying and comfort her. We set at the table and colored and talked. We remained friends all through school but haven’t seen her in many many years.

  2. Henri says:

    The following webpage has been set up to collect stories of Camille.

    http://www.virginiaemergency.com/

    Right now there are 48 stories from New Orleans to Nelson County.

    An amazing collection.

  3. NCL Mag says:

    Fantastic link! Thanks for the info Henri!

  4. […] Trail Head just south of Nellysford. They were there to remember the catastrophic day back in 1969 when Hurricane Camille landed right on top of Nelson County, Virginia. Dr. Bob Raynor (center) flanked by his wife Shirley to the right and Milly Colella, left, listen at […]

  5. SA says:

    I’m only 40 yrs old and born in a different county, so I don’t remember any of this. But I have seen the reports of the 40th ann. on the news and in the papers a lot this week. I wanted everyone to know that my heart and tears go out to the survivers. I can’t imagine how the people of Nelson County dealth with this.

  6. […] seat or corner left to stand in at Thursday night’s remembrance of the 40 year anniversary of Hurricane Camille held at Nelson County High School. A slide presentation was followed by a program including music, […]

  7. Gerri Gilbert says:

    Hi,
    My brother was one of the driver’s of the Morton’s tractor and trailer, that washed off Rt. 29 – He was found on Sunday. His name was Almond Wesley Herring. We are interested in visiting the museum, about the flood – what are the hours it is open? Almond was 35 years old, when he died. What a terrible time. My dad went each day , hoping to find him. His tractor was never found the trailer was found down the river.
    GHG

  8. Ed Critzer says:

    Hattie Critzer was one of those few whose bodies were never found after Camille. She had married a cousin of mine, Sidney Critzer, and was a widow when the water washed her house away. I did a lot of research on her and would like to share it with any of her descendents. I understand that she had a granddaughter named Shirley. Would anyone know how I could reach her? Please e-mail me if you know anything about Hattie’s descendents.

  9. W Sanders says:

    My father Henry Sanders was killed in Nelson County during this Cyclone hurricaine Camille. It amazes as it does my sister that the trucking driving company sent my dad, and his partner buddy, which had 4 kids on this route. Surely, the dispatch new of the dangers of this hurricaine. I was a teen at the time, and didn’t fully get the whole picture until later. Dad had a closed casket, I over heard some family members say he was swelled up from the water. He came home to us in two body bags. He had been washed down the river, about 20 miles, and was embedded in the sides of the rockfish river. He was survived by 3 daughters, I think of my Dad every day, and feel that he should not sent to that area by dispatch. The weekend before he went out on a trip , he wanted see both my sister and I, and told her if anything happened to him, what to do, so I dont know if he was adviced of the storm, or not, since it landed in Missississippi on a Saturday, before he asked us to come see, him, and he always went out on a trip on sunday. I suppose they the dispatch thought it would turn toward fla. Sorry but when we have hurricaines it brings back these memories.

  10. Pete Rankin says:

    I have 48 pictures that a friend took shortly after Camille hit.

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