The heavy, wet thud of boulders crashing into each other and anything else in their path as they tumbled down the flood-swollen Davis Creek lingers in Debbie Harvey’s memory.
She was 8 years old when the water-logged remnants of Hurricane Camille dumped its 27 or more inches of rain over parts of Nelson County. All that rain swelled little Davis Creek into a raging river that swept away homes and entire families on this creek nestled against the Blue Ridge Mountains, about five miles northwest of Lovingston.
Harvey, now chairwoman of the Camille Commemoration Committee and president of the Oakland — The Nelson County Museum of History, has been working on remembrances for the 50th anniversary of the tragedy that carved scars into the landscape and the community she calls home.
“The damage to the earth, the damage to the people who lived here — those scars have healed, but they are still there,” Harvey said. “A lot of people are still sensitive about Camille because of the loss of life and the unexpectedness of it.”
Families in Nelson County went about their nightly routines thinking the only thing the night air held was an inch or so of rain to add to the wet summer. They had no idea of the devastation to come.
Overnight, tiny streams such as Davis Creek swelled into violent rivers, and the earth let go from mountainsides, filling valleys with mud and debris. Roads washed out, and this close-knit community found itself cut off from the rest of the world.
Harvey’s childhood home and her family’s apple orchard sat far back on the southern branch of Davis Creek. She remembers waking in the middle of the night when the power went out. Her next memory is of her mother coming into her room in the morning.
“She said, ‘There’s been a flood,’” Harvey recalled.
She ran to a window, looking up toward the mountainside, but she didn’t see standing water.
“I said, ‘What flood? There’s nothing there,’” Harvey recalled. “And then I looked out the front and that’s where it looked down in the valley and over the orchard. You could see the orchard was gone. You could see the stream that ran down the front, all the mud and everything from that. When we went outside, you could hear the rolling of the rocks in the creek. That sound.”
Davis Creek swelled from about six- inches-deep and five-to-eight feet-wide, to 75-feet-deep in places and in other parts stretching some 500 feet wide, according to the Oakland — The Nelson County Museum of History.
Huge boulders tumbled from landslides and thundered down the swiftly flowing river. The rush of water and mud spared Harvey’s family home, but destroyed 21 out of 36 houses in the Davis Creek community, killing 52 people, according to the museum.
“The part I lived on, there were two branches to the creek,” Harvey said. “On one side, what they call the north branch, just about everyone washed away. I think there was about one family left. On my side, there were 3 houses left at the head.”
Harvey considers her family among one of the luckier ones. The only family member lost was her mother’s first cousin, whose body was among the 33 never found.
The volume of water and debris that barreled through the creek destroyed the Harvey family’s fruit trees and severed the house from its neighbors.
“We couldn’t get from our house to another house because the road bed was just gone,” she said.
Harvey remembered her father, uncle and another relative trying to find a way to get out of the community, but the roads had vanished. They turned on the car radio and heard about flooding across Virginia and worried the destruction they saw around them was widespread.
“It was like survivor mode,” she said. “What are we going to do? Because nobody is going to think of these three little houses that are way back in the mountains, so they started trying to walk out.”
Harvey said the water came right through her uncle’s front yard. He had climbed into his car that night to try to leave, when the side of the mountain came tumbling down, cutting off escape.
“I remember going out and sitting in the car and my parents were like, ‘We got to save the battery in the car because this might be all we have until we can get power,’” Harvey said. “You do what you have to do to get through at the time without necessarily a lot of thought to it.”
Harvey said her father had a generator that provided a little bit of power, but they still were cooking on a wood stove. Helicopters soon dropped food to the stranded families as they searched for the injured, the missing and the dead.
“I remember my father coming home at night and telling us who had been found during the day,” she said.
Harvey remembers all that remained of a nearby house was the concrete back steps. The home and its owner were swept away.
“If she had stepped out her back door, she probably would have been fine,” Harvey said. “But you know, you didn’t know. … There’s some really tragic stories of that night, and some of those families and the rescues — the rescues and the losses.”
It took a few weeks before a makeshift road was cut through and an old Army Jeep took Harvey and her family to the medical center so they could get inoculated against typhoid fever.
“I can remember being in the Jeep and all of us going to the health center, there was a big line for the typhoid shot,” she said. “I remember it was a big needle.”
Davis Creek was one of those places where everyone knew everyone. They worked together and they worshiped together and they played together.
When school finally resumed in late September, Harvey remembers how her school bus passed stop after stop where the previous spring it would have paused to let children on board.
“… When we did start back to school, there were no school children getting on the bus,” she said.
The tiny cemetery at Oak Hill Baptist Church on Davis Creek Lane doubled in size that year and its congregation almost vanished.
For years after, a heavy rain would make Harvey nervous. Her family developed an emergency plan in the event such a storm ever came again.
In the summer of 1972, the remnants of Hurricane Agnes dumped rain on communities that hadn’t yet recovered from Camille.
“Whenever it would rain hard at night, you would lay awake scared,” Harvey said. “It was something that never really crossed your mind before Camille.”
In the winter, when the trees are barren, one can see the bedrock exposed where the earth let go from the side of the mountains that loom over Davis Creek. Nothing has grown there, but the trees have stretched across the void, masking the mountains’ scars in summer.
In the aftermath of the storm, Harvey’s father, Clyde Harvey, began restoring his orchards, trying to salvage his family’s livelihood by replanting the trees that survived.
A few years later, he discovered Camille had left a different kind of legacy behind — a new variety of apple.
The golden, fall-ripening apple is a crossbreeding of a Golden Delicious, Albemarle Pippin and another unknown apple variety. Clyde Harvey named the apple “Ginger Gold,” after Harvey’s mother.
“[Ginger Gold] was really kind of a fluke, but it’s very unusual to have a new variety of apple that can reproduce itself,” Harvey said. “It always felt like something positive that came out of the flood.”