- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

RICHMOND | Floodwaters sweeping children away from their parents. Bloated animal carcasses floating downriver. Mudslides carving away chunks of mountains.

Those were some of the images shared by people living in Virginia 40 years ago when the remnants of Hurricane Camille dumped more than 2 feet of rain overnight, killing 153 people and in some cases washing away entire families. An estimated 1.2 trillion gallons of water fell in Nelson County during a six-hour period, according to state emergency officials.

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management put out a request for memories of the devastating storm and its aftermath, setting up a Web page for people to post their comments. More than 40 people have recounted their experiences on the agency’s site.

“We wanted to allow for a way for people to share their stories,” agency spokesman Bob Spieldenner said Monday. “Probably there are some people who will never talk about what happened, but this was an important and unique way to remember what happened and what it meant.”

Camille made landfall in Mississippi on Aug. 17, 1969. The storm was a tropical depression by the time it hit Virginia, but then turned lethal as it spread across the state on Aug. 19-20. As most people slept, up to 27 inches of rain devastated central Virginia, with Nelson County taking the brunt of the storm. Overflowing tributaries of the James River also swamped surrounding counties before high waters swept through Richmond and other areas downstream, taking debris into Hampton Roads and beyond.

Pat Banks was a 21-year-old disc jockey at a radio station in Waynesboro and wrapped up his late-night shift when the rain started. He made it home, but later that morning, his car was swept away by the South River and flooded.

“It’s been 40 years, so it’s a little hard to recall exactly, but there are things that are burned into one’s memory,” Mr. Banks said Monday in a telephone interview. “There really wasn’t any particular warning other than ‘Rain, may be heavy at times.’ ”

Word started getting around by daybreak about the devastation in Nelson County, about how a wall of water pummeled a boy out of his father’s arms as the family tried to wade to safety, and about others who were missing after being swept away. Days later, Mr. Banks drove down state Highway 151 to survey the destruction, seeing boulders that were gouged out of mountains and cars submerged in mud.

“Had to be a nightmare,” Mr. Banks said on the Web site. “Some, no doubt, never knew what hit them.”

One person described knowing of people whose entire homes were heaved off their foundations, killing the families inside, and several others recalled pitching in to survey damage and help storm victims.

Mark McKissick’s father loaded his family into the car to see the destruction a few days after the rain ended, and the images “left an indelible print on me.”

Members of his family’s church volunteered to help victims: Mr. McKissick, then 13 years old, was assigned to assist a farmer by hooking chains around dead cows stuck beneath heaps of deadwood. Using a tractor, the farmer would drag out the animals, then bury them — a sobering experience for a boy.

“I remember how gross it was putting those chains on the cows, but people just pitched in and did what they could,” he said by telephone.

Virginia was declared a federal disaster area, and the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1970 estimated the damage at more than $116 million.

Agency spokesman Mr. Spieldenner said Camille signaled the start of a dramatic shift in Virginia’s disaster-preparation efforts away from the Cold War-era fixation on nuclear threats.

“Before Camille, the focus in emergency management was ‘the bomb,’ ” he said. “We were the Office of Civil Defense. After Camille, laws were changed and redefined, and [they] set up emergency management as it is today.”

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