Sunday, July 7, 2013

Series of Virginia Hurricane History: Piedmont

Hurricane Camille (August 1969)

Hurricane Camille arrived in Virginia on the night of August 19, 1969, one of only three category five storms ever to make landfall in the United States since record-keeping began. One of the worst natural disasters in Virginia's history, the storm produced what meteorologists at the time guessed might be the most rainfall "theoretically possible." As it swept through Virginia overnight, it seemed to catch authorities by surprise. Communication networks were not in place or were knocked out, leaving floods and landslides to trap residents as they slept. Hurricane Camille cost Virginia 113 lives lost and $116 million in damages. It also served as a lesson that inland flooding could be as great a danger as coastal flooding during a hurricane

The Storm

What started as a tropical storm became Hurricane Camille as it rounded Cuba and entered the Gulf of Mexico. When the storm was just one hundred miles from the Gulf Coast, a reconnaissance plane measured central wind speeds at more than 200 miles per hour, well above the 155 miles per hour wind speed required for a category five storm. Making landfall in the Bay Saint Louis area of Mississippi on August 17, the storm was still packing wind speeds of about 170 miles per hour and the surge was twenty-five feet high. Moving up the mouth of the Mississippi, Hurricane Camille killed 143 people in the Gulf Coast region before heading north. Two days later, the storm had significantly diminished in strength, becoming a much weaker tropical depression. On the evening of August 19, Camille appeared to pose little threat to Virginians. To the surprise of forecasters, however, that evening the storm made a sharp turn to the east, leaving Kentucky and heading over the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where during the night the rain intensified dramatically.
By ten o'clock on the night of August 19, Camille stretched from West Virginia all the way to Fredericksburg, Virginia, and areas to the north and east of the center of the storm were experiencing very heavy rainfall. The rain landed on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, rapidly swelling creeks and exacerbating the effects of the storm. Overnight, rainfall accumulations were measured at about ten inches between Charlottesville and Lynchburg, with Nelson County receiving the brunt of the storm with at least twenty-seven inches of rainfall. So much rain fell in such a short time in Nelson County that, according to the National Weather Service at the time, it was "the probable maximum rainfall which meteorologists compute to be theoretically possible."

This amount of rain in such a short period of time rapidly flooded mountain creeks and streams, creating flash floods and causing landslides. Because the increased intensity of the storm came as a surprise overnight, few residents were warned about the rising waters.

The problem was compounded by the fact that area communications were ravaged as the storm progressed, making it impossible for communities to warn their downstream neighbors of what was coming.

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