Larry Spencer was 20 in August of 1969, when when the remnants of Hurricane Camille tore through Nelson County, taking at least 114 lives with it. Another 37 remain missing.
He helped with the community’s cleanup effort and can still remember an earthy smell he said stuck around for over a year after the catastrophe. Dick Whitehead remembers the smell too — “outrageous” because so much rich mountain soil had been released by landslides.
Spencer and Whitehead were among Camille survivors who shared their stories with visitors at the Oakland Museum’s Hurricane Camille Anniversary Event on Aug. 20.
Whitehead is the son of Bill Whitehead, who was sheriff of Nelson County in 1969. He’s amassed an enormous collection of photos from the aftermath of the storm, from his father and from donations, that are now published in a book for sale at the Oakland Museum. Whitehead presented photos to a crowd Saturday, and said he’s made it his goal to find out what’s going on in every picture. He can identify children, cars and unrecognizable, ravaged landscapes.
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“This thing haunts people,” Nelson County Historical Society Board Member Woody Greenberg said.
He played oral histories for groups of visitors and said the Camille Resource Center at the Oakland Museum adds more testimonies every year.
Camille was one of only three category 5 hurricanes to hit the U.S. in the 20th century, and it wasn’t expected to pass through Central Virginia or become more than a tropical depression. Camille first landed in Biloxi, Mississippi with 190 mile-per-hour winds but the storm lost its power as it traveled north into Kentucky. There, it was embedded in a jet stream and took an abrupt eastward turn, crossing through West Virginia and Central Virginia before heading off to sea.
Survivors have terrifying, tragic and bizarre stories to tell.
Bar Delk remembered how in the aftermath he saw light bulbs — intact, despite the “massive destruction” around them — that had floated to the top of flood waters.
Spencer recalled finding piles of snakes in the wreckage, along with bodies stripped of clothes and jewelry.
Whitehead said he stood by the Lane Ford Bridge at the intersection of Virginia 56 and Virginia 151 and watched, through flashes of lighting, the waterway start to widen and floodwaters rise and cut through the pavement on either side of the bridge. Whitehead said the bridge survived the night but the road was washed away on either side, eroded in minutes.
“Dad said, ‘Well, we’re not going that way,’” he recalled.
Whitehead said there’s evidence of at least two 55 gallon barrels that were filled to the brim with rainwater that night. He’s measured, and that standard size barrel holds 31 inches of water.
Spencer said rainfall during the storm was so heavy you had to hold a hand over your nose and mouth to breath. That volume of rainwater made streams and creeks overflow, sending floodwaters loaded with mud, trees, rocks and other debris down valleys, according to Oakland Museum exhibits.
Whitehead’s photographs show houses upended, torn apart and slid off their foundations like toys; bridges swept away leaving gaping chasms; mountains of debris, and ravines left from landslides where he said trees still won’t grow.
He also has a background in geology, and explained it wasn’t just the quantity of rain, but that much rain washing over mountainous terrain, gaining the “consistency of wet concrete” and flowing downhill, that resulted in so many deaths. He said most fatalities in the David Creek area, which was especially affected by landslides, were the result of blunt force trauma.
“Nobody expected this and rightfully so,” Whitehead said.
Claudette Dalton was an undergraduate student at Sweet Briar College around the time of the storm. She was at the anniversary event and lives in Nelson County now: “it’s a part of the history of where I live.”
Spencer descends from the Huffman and Simpson families who lived in Davis Creek and said more than 60 of his relatives died in the storm. He pointed to the many names ending in Huffman on the list of victims displayed at the Oakland museum, also to a man who’s wife’s body he believes he found.
“I’ll never forget how thick that mud was,” he said.