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50 Years Later, Virginia Recalls The Devastation Caused By Hurricane Camille

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Virginians are marking 50 years since Hurricane Camille hit their state, leaving 124 people dead. The storm made landfall on the Gulf Coast and then moved north to the Blue Ridge Mountains. It collided with a cold front and dropped more than 2 feet of rain overnight. From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports.

SANDY HAUSMAN, BYLINE: For the people of Nelson County, August 19, 1969 was like so many other summer days - hot and humid. Before his death in April of this year, Bernard McGinnis remembered.

BERNARD MCGINNIS: Eleven o'clock news at night, the weather report says that, you know, rainy and cloudy. Just go to bed, yeah.

HAUSMAN: But resident Ed Rothgeb would recall thunder that echoed through the mountains and rain that came down in sheets.

ED ROTHGEB: It was almost like you couldn't breathe because the rain was so heavy. My house is on a hill. And when I stepped out in my yard, I had water around my ankles.

HAUSMAN: To make matters worse, the power went out. But the phones were still working. And at 2 a.m., the family of 14-year-old Warren Raines got a call warning that the nearby Tye River was coming up fast. He, his parents and five siblings decided to leave.

WARREN RAINES: Next-door neighbor asked if four of their kids could come with us. His wife was wheelchair-bound, and they figured they would take a chance at riding it out. But he'd feel better if his kids came with us, so 11 of us got in our family's station wagon and tried to leave. And the engine died from the water getting up in the engine.

HAUSMAN: They thought it might be possible to walk to higher ground. But as the late Cliff Wood explained, the geographic deck was stacked against them.

CLIFF WOOD: Nelson County starts at 4,000 feet, and it flows downhill to the James River. And 30 inches of rain falling under those circumstances actually dissolved the mountainsides. Trees broke loose from the ground, and the earth and the rocks tumbled - rocks as big as automobiles.

HAUSMAN: Debris created dams that would burst. The Raines family was caught in the currents.

RAINES: One of the last things I remembered was seeing my mother. She was with an older sister of mine, and I told them what I was holding on to wasn't holding. Anyhow, they said, let go, and we'll catch you. And when I got to where they were, they were gone. That was the last I saw of them.

HAUSMAN: Raines and his 16-year-old brother Carl survived by clinging to trees. Frequent flashes of lightning allowed them to watch as houses, cars and cattle floated by. One hundred twenty-four people died that night, including Raines' parents, three siblings and two of the neighbor's children. Their homes survived the flood, the second floors untouched.

Audrey Evans' home was also spared, but the family awoke to find their basement filled with water. She and her dad headed out to get cleaning supplies and discovered part of the road to town had washed away.

AUDREY EVANS: My father and I walked down the highway and saw this field with cars and refrigerators and home parts. And people were wandering around like something out of "Dawn Of The Dead." It was a mind-boggler.

HAUSMAN: The storm had swept away miles of roads, more than a hundred bridges and 900 buildings. Today, experts understand the factors that led to this disaster - remnants of the hurricane, a cold front, the jet stream pushing air up and a cluster of thunderstorms raining down on land already saturated by a wet summer. In the age of climate change, meteorologists say it could certainly happen again anywhere along the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In Lovingston, Va., I'm Sandy Hausman.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN SHIELDS' "IKEBANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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