Soft piano music filled the Nelson County High School auditorium as more than 200 people filed in and took their seats, ready to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a storm that forever changed the small county.
On Sunday at 2 p.m., the Nelson County Historical Society sponsored a commemoration event remembering those who were lost when the remnants of Hurricane Camille tore through the county the night of Aug. 19, 1969. Most Nelson County families went to sleep that night 50 years ago not knowing the rain would intensify, ultimately pelting parts of the county with more than 27 inches of rain.
Tiny creeks turned into raging rivers that swept away homes and families. The earth liquefied and slid from its perches in the Blue Ridge mountains, demolishing everything in its wake. By the time the water receded, 125 people were dead. The bodies of 33 of those people never were found; eight people never were identified.
Deborah Harvey, president of the historical society and co-chair of the Camille Steering Committee, said it’s been 18 months since the committee began planning remembrances to honor those killed in the storm and those who stepped up to help in times of crisis.
“This is certainly the culmination. We’re excited, but we also remember this is a meaningful day for all of us. We’re glad to bring everyone together to remember the lives lost and how the county recovered,” Harvey said.
The Camille Steering Committee is made up of Harvey and co-chair Phil Payne, Bar Delk, Doris Delk, Beth Goodwin, Jane Raup, Leigh Thompson and Dick Whitehead.
“All of them were residents when Camille hit in August 1969,” Harvey said. “We felt it was important to have people who could be sensitive to the emotions this would bring up.”
The event began with a slide show of the devastation caused that fateful evening 50 years ago — a home on its side, roads washed out, bridges demolished — as the crowd quickly filled the auditorium. Harvey said for those who might not have been able to make it, the event also was live-streamed on Facebook, thanks to Central Virginia Electric Cooperative and Firefly Fiber Broadband.
“We can stream it for others who may have moved away and record it forever,” Harvey said.
After the piano music faded, the Rev. Don Harvey welcomed the crowd. The Reverend led the event, introduced the different singers, speakers, and read the names of each victim who died 50 years ago, while a picture of most of them was displayed.
“The flood, as people around here call it, was a transformative event,” he said.
Payne and retired Judge Michael Gamble spoke to the audience, recalled their personal stories from the night of Aug. 19, 1969, and what it meant for them and the county in between performances by Faithful Praise, The Toms Sisters, and The Fortune Family Singers.
Payne recognized those who lost their lives; the families of those people who were in the auditorium; those who came into the county to help with recovery and rebuilding, including the military and the Mennonites; and the people in the county who didn’t wait for help, but who immediately started clearing roads and picking up the pieces. Payne asked the audience to think about and practice “neighbor helping neighbor,” just as the county did 50 years ago.
“For the families of those for whom we gather here today to remember, words can’t express their loss,” Payne said.
Gamble echoed Payne’s words and said although time is suppose to heal, he feels just as sad each time he reads a name of someone who didn’t survive or sees their photograph. Gamble recalled his own memories of walking through parts of the county the morning of Aug. 20, witnessing the horrific destruction and the citizens of Nelson County who already had set to work to salvage and rebuild.
“The people of this county, not waiting for help from any sorts, with water still running over roads and bridges, were already out with tractors and bulldozers, power saws, axes, and bare hands clearing debris and opening roads,” Gamble recalled.
Gamble said it was testament to the citizens of Nelson that would have made those who perished proud.
Before Gamble gave his closing remarks, Don Harvey took a minute to remember Tiffany Spencer. Spencer, who died in a car crash 10 days ago, helped put together the event program and helped the historical society gather accurate information about all of those killed during Hurricane Camille. Spencer was a descendant of the Huffman family, who lived along Davis Creek in Nelson County when Hurricane Camille claimed the lives of 18 of them.
Fifty years later, it is clear the effects of the storm are very much alive in Nelson County as Don Harvey asked people to stand if they had family or friends who died in the storm, were there when it struck, or were affected in any way. About half of the auditorium stood. Finally, Don Harvey asked anyone who was a guest of someone affected to stand as well and by then everyone was on their feet.
People left the auditorium in silence, thinking of the lives lost, the recovery of the county and those who made that recovery possible.
“It’s very much a Nelson event,” Deborah Harvey said.
Erin Conway covers Nelson County for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5524.