Hurricane Camille: Remembering community cleanup 50 years later

ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) - Fifty years ago this month, Hurricane Camille shattered an entire community overnight.

In the dark hours of August 20, Nelson County lost nearly 1 percent of its entire population, swept away by record-breaking flood waters. But the people who woke up to the destruction got to work almost immediately. Their story is one we're sharing as part of our special series. Remembering Camille: 50 years after the flood.

"8-23-69. This is project E-7. Davis Creek," says Phillip Payne, reading over yellowed documents. "Body behind Floyd Harris's home."

The attorney is flipping through a stack of documents and note cards from his father's old filing cabinets.

"One body one mile below Warren or 5 miles below Howardsville," he reads.

They're detailed notes taken 50 years ago, when incessant rain descended upon Nelson County.

"We all lost track of time," Payne said of that summer. "The days became first day, second day, third day."

The miscellaneous notes make up the narrative of what happened when Hurricane Camille hit, on a day that began like any other day.

"That evening, August 19, that's where I was," Payne said. "Football practice."

Payne says practice at Nelson County high school was canceled after dark storm clouds formed above.

"They were like giant tumbleweeds, just rolling."

By the time he left the locker room, rain was falling hard.

“The rain just came in waves, beginning to be hard to see.”

Payne got a ride home, ate dinner and went to bed.

When he woke up, trees were everywhere, homes washed away, and reports that dozens were missing.

"That was our first inkling, our's, that people had been killed."

The response that followed came as quickly as the record-breaking waters that had swept through the night. Payne grabbed his camera.

"This is 29 just north of Lovingston," he said, handing over a black and white print, "where Muddy Creek had been pushed into the southbound lane."

Military helicopters arrived on the 29 bypass right away. Payne's father Dan was at the helm, he said, pointing to a picture.

"There's dad again in his fishing cap."

A Chevrolet dealership owner, Korea veteran and devout trout fisherman, Payne corralled friends and neighbors who knew the land best. They were spotters in the air and others, including young Payne, began the grisly on-the-ground search and rescue missions.

"Most of those guys worked for the next three weeks, looking for bodies."

Any job needed was fulfilled. People spent weeks cleaning up, bringing equipment from home and work. Women collected clothing, ran communications and made food.

"Everyone immediately who was in a position to do so, started doing something."

That included the Mennonites who responded almost immediately doing anything asked of them.

"There was no such word as impossible or no. They just did it. I mean they are saints in this county."

For several weeks, the people of Nelson County slowly rebuilt their homes, their businesses and their lives. Payne's father helped lead them, clearing the way for some semblance of normality.

"I think he was probably as proud of that as anything he'd ever done," Payne said, becoming emotional.

Payne now only has to walk across the street from his law office to find the memorial to victims outside of the courthouse: a permanent reminder of what water, time and faded memories might eventually fade away.

"It's surprising how many people take time, walk up and read it, and consider it."

For Payne, Hurricane Camille's lasting impact was not one of destruction, but one of restoration, fueled by the hands of an entire community.

"Don't wait to be asked, jump in!"

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