When Nelson County residents remember Hurricane Camille; the torrential rains, flooding, landslides, and the lives lost, they also remember the recovery.
They remember how the county came together to pick up the pieces, and they remember one particular group that showed up to lend a helping hand.
The Mennonite Disaster Service is a nonprofit volunteer network of Anabaptist churches dedicated to responding to natural and man-made disasters in Canada and the United States. Founded in the early 1950s, the group is dedicated to helping those in need. It currently consists of about 4,000 volunteers from Mennonite, Amish and Brethren in Christ churches.
Flash back to the evening of Aug. 19 and early morning 20, 1969 in Nelson County, Virginia. Hurricane Camille began dumping sheets of rain across the county late that night, mountains began moving, and by the morning of Aug. 20, one percent of the county’s residents had perished. Looking back on the tragedy, residents often mention the Mennonites, who arrived in the aftermath to help county residents repair and rebuild.
“I think people in the county were so touched that people would give their time and money to help, particularly the Mennonite Disaster Service,” Jane Raup said.
Raup, current archivist for the Nelson County Historical Society, lived in the Norwood-Wingina area and was entering high school when Hurricane Camille tore through the county.
“Some of their volunteers stayed for weeks rebuilding houses, shoveling mud, picking through piles of debris looking for bodies,” Raup said.
Bobbie Napier, who helped with rescue and recovery efforts on the Roseland Rescue Squad after Hurricane Camille, said the county had a lot of outside, help including the Mennonites.
“They came in not just to look for bodies, but to help rebuild,” Napier said.
Napier said the group helped residents with the things they needed to get back to living.
“They put several houses back on foundations, redid some of the damage to houses, and were just a big help,” Napier recalled.
Ed Tinsley, a retired Virginia State Trooper, fondly remembers the Mennonites and the help they were after the storm.
“I tell people if you really want to get me upset, just say one little thing at all bad about the Mennonites,” Tinsley said.
Tinsley said the group was so efficient and helpful, no one ever had to go back and redo or research anything the Mennonites helped with. Tinsley remembers a man telling a story about a neighbor whose home was destroyed in the flooding. According to this man, his neighbor saw the group of Mennonites coming and thought they were coming to steal.
“His neighbor hollered and cussed and ranted and raved. The group of Mennonites just stood there and, when he stopped, the person in charge said, ‘Sir, we didn’t come in to loot you, we came in to rebuild your house,’” Tinsley said.
Tinsley said that’s just the way the Mennonites were.
“They are fantastic. I never witnessed any group as neat as they are,” Tinsley said.
Joseph Shank, a member of the Mennonite Disaster Service now in his 80s, recalls traveling from Waynesboro into Nelson County when a local service director heard what had happened that August and said a group was going to see what they could do to help.
“We are fulfilling Christ’s obligation to help people when disaster happens,” Shank said about what the service does.
Shank remembers traveling through Waynesboro, crossing a mountain, and entering the county along the Tye River.
“We went as far as we could, but the bridges were out,” Shank said.
Shank and the group he was with first came across the flooded house of two women he guessed to be in their 60s, and that’s when his recovery efforts after Hurricane Camille began.
“Water had been in their house four or five feet. We started trying to muck out and work on that,” Shank said.
Shank also spent time in Massies Mill, mucking out houses and helping out.
“As far as really helping in Nelson County, I did help some, but not like a lot of the others. I had friends who went and rebuilt, built new, and repaired,” Shank said. “Some of the fellows went over one day and a number of them were taken in helicopters to search for bodies. How do you respond in a situation like that?”
Shank went on to recall one day in a grocery store hauling out materials and items that got flooded when he met a young man, about 25 years old.
“I asked, ‘What happened to you?’ He said ‘I lost my wife and daughter. But I can’t dwell on that. It was an act of God.’ That was a week and a half and two weeks later,” Shank said. “When you work with MDS you come in contact with a lot of hurting people.”
Shank said one of the hardest parts when working with the service, as he had after Camille and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is answering people’s questions.
“‘Why did this happen to us?’ Well, it was an act of God and we have to treat it as such,” Shank said.
Like Shank, Jim Truslow spent many of his nights after Aug. 20, 1969, helping to repair the Beech Grove area of Nelson County. Truslow is a lifelong Nelson resident, now 82 and living in the Nellysford and Stoney Creek area.
“I actually got involved with MDS after Camille,” Truslow said.
Truslow said his wife’s family are Mennonites and after meeting and working with them during Camille, he wanted to be more involved. He officially began with MDS 30 years ago.
“I got involved knowing some people because of Hurricane Camille,” Truslow said.
Truslow was 32 years old when the storm hit and had three young children. Truslow said he could tell it was going to be a big storm the night of Aug. 19, 1969 when his family was on the way to his aunt’s to celebrate a birthday.
“It was pouring. I could hear rocks rolling in the creek about a half mile away,” Truslow recalled. “It was unbelievable.”
Truslow said helping repair and rebuild with some Mennonites began after he got off work each day and go late into the night. Truslow ran a 955 Caterpillar, a giant piece of construction equipment, that a friend of his owned to move heavy debris off roadways in the Beech Grove area.
“I would get off General Electric in Waynesboro at 4 p.m. I’d come home, do some farm work, and eat something. Then I’d go out and work the piece of equipment to move things off roads,” Truslow said. “This went on for a number of weeks.”
Truslow said when the creek flooded, “It just took everything.” He worked for weeks to rebuild the roads and get the creek back in its original path.
Both Shank and Truslow said the service never does any of the work for recognition or rewards. According to them, the Bible says you don’t do it for praise, but because people are in need.
“It’s part of what we have been taught from little up: You help your neighbor when you can. We don’t want recognition for that,” Shank said.
Shank and Truslow still are members of the service and continue to help whenever they can.
“I think they made us feel like we could recover; seeing that example being set,” Raup said.
Erin Conway covers Nelson County for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5524.