Monday, July 8, 2013

Series of Virginia Hurricane History: Piedmont: Camille

The Aftermath:  Camille

Finally, on August 20, Camille made its way off the coast of Virginia and out to sea. It left in its path communities devastated by floods and landslides. Virginia counted 113 deaths from the storm, thirty-nine missing and presumed dead, and damages adding up to $116 million.

The majority of the deaths and damages occurred in Nelson County, where flooding along Davis Creek and Huffman's Hollow surprised residents in rural communities. The storm also swept away more than one hundred bridges in the state and left only a single highway intact. With its tributaries and headwaters receiving the most rainfall, the James River experienced severe flooding all the way through Richmond.

The inland destruction caused by Camille resulted in a rethinking of the planning for natural disasters. Until that time coastal communities were presumed to be at the greatest risk from hurricanes; Camille proved otherwise and prompted the U.S.

Congress to pass the Disaster Relief Act of 1969. Hurricane Camille, along with other massive disasters of the 1960s and 1970s, including Hurricanes Carla (1962), Betsy (1965), and Agnes (1972), led to U.S. president Jimmy Carter's 1979 Executive Order 12127 that merged many separate disaster-related organizations into the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The agency is charged with coordinating recovery efforts after natural disasters in the United States.

In 1970, the Nelson County Chamber of Commerce commissioned Charlottesville Daily Progress associate editor Jerry Simpson and his wife, Paige Shoaf Simpson, to collect stories of Hurricane Camille into a book titled Torn Land. The book holds the accounts of numerous people who were involved in the rescue and recovery efforts following the storm; proceeds of book sales funded the building of a new Nelson County library.
Signs of Hurricane Camille can still be found throughout central Virginia.

In 1972, the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission posted a marker and monument near Woods Mill in Nelson County memorializing the tragedy of Hurricane Camille. James River State Park, which encompasses the confluence of the Tye and James rivers, also commemorates Camille's force at an overlook point. Just upstream on the James is where some observers claim they saw the river flow backward because of the volume of water Camille forced down the Tye River.

The devastation of Hurricane Camille remains fresh in the memories of many Virginians. Roar of the Heavens: Surviving Hurricane Camille (2006), by Stefan Bechtel, retells the story of Camille. Bechtel was inspired to write a chronicle of the storm when, after moving to Charlottesville twenty years earlier, he began hearing about Camille from local residents. How a hurricane could cause such damage so far inland mystified him, and his curiosity resulted in perhaps the most thorough account of the storm.

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