Sherpa Guides > Virginia Mountains > The Nelson County Flood of 1969

The Nelson County Flood of 1969

History may remember Hurricane Camille as the monster storm that wreaked havoc among the Gulf states. If Virginia is not included in the public memory, that's because lines of communication—telephones, highways, mail service—were down in rural Nelson County, Virginia. By the time news crews found out what the dying remnants of Camille had done to this sparsely populated county on the east side of the Blue Ridge, the nation's attention was diverted elsewhere. Even the nearby communities of Waynesboro and Charlottesville, beset with their own flooding, took awhile to learn of the devastation.

When Camille arrived, a large tropical air mass was already in place over Nelson County, dumping torrential rains. Soil on the steep mountain slopes was supersaturated. Then, on the night of August 19, 1969, rainfall to challenge existing world records for 24 hour periods fell overnight. Amounts in excess of 25 inches—and possibly as high as 37 inches in one area—were recorded. Whole sections of mountainsides, including trees and soil right down to bedrock, slid off into the narrow hollows, damming the streams. Water and debris built up tremendous pressure behind these false dams, finally breaking loose in raging torrents, taking entire settlements out with them.

People fleeing their homes remember the strobe-light effect of constant lightning which they used to find their way through the night woods to high ground or to a neighbor's house. They describe the experience as similar to walking beneath a waterfall. A baby being carried in her father's arms had to be turned over to keep from drowning. In the hellish night, one family that had built several homes along tiny Davis Creek lost 21 members to a surging wall of water—parents, aunts, uncles, children, even babies. The county itself lost 120 people—more than 1 percent of its population. Some bodies were never recovered. Some bodies that were recovered were never identified.

The mountainsides still bear the scars. From US 29 running north/south through the county, patches of bedrock not yet covered by vegetation on the steep slopes are grim reminders of that August night. And the people—who still look nervously out their windows when it rains—bear their own deep wounds.

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