Hurricane Camille: Lessons learned from Virginia's deadliest weather disaster

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50 years later, Hurricane Camille holds the record for one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the United States. But it's what happened after landfall that will likely forever be recognized as Virginia's deadliest weather disaster.

From the very beginning, Camille outwitted even the best hurricane forecasters, who at the time had very few tools at their fingertips. Satellite imagery was limited, and radar quality was barely helpful even under the best circumstances.

The hurricane was supposed to make landfall east of the Mississippi, but the track changed drastically three times before landfall. A warning for Gulfport, Mississippi was issued just 15 hours before landfall.

Then as it moved inland, as hurricanes often do, it weakened rapidly to a tropical depression. It produced only a few inches of rain in Kentucky and West Virginia, so there was no big concern about it as it moved along the Appalachians.

The remnants never stalled, but leftover moisture combined with a slow-moving front and the mountains triggered unprecedented rainfall over multiple counties in Virginia. It was the perfect storm.

"You have this train of thunderstorms developing over and over again that just happened to be in the same location," recalls Steve Keighton, meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Blacksburg.

In 1969, the nearest Weather Bureau was in Washington D.C., along with the only available radar for our area at the time.

Locals and historic records called for showers that night, heavy at times for the area, but nothing that would indicate any type of severe threat.

THEN THE RAIN CAME
Between sunset and sunrise, 12 to 27 inches of rain fell on Rockbridge, Amherst and Nelson counties. The bullseye was in Nelson county, near Massies Mill, situated right next to the Tye River.

During the night, the rain fell so hard and fast, several interviewed recall it was tough to breathe, let alone escape the fury of the rising water fast enough to get to higher ground.

Then again, even higher ground wasn't safe.

Dick Whitehead was 19 at the time. His father was Nelson county's sheriff. "It didn't dawn on you at that time how epic this was. How many lives were lost and how much flooding had occurred."

Whitehead recalls waking with his father in the middle of the night to help reach those needed help. "There was just this deafening roar from the nearby streams. You could smell this pungent earth smell from all the landslides."

FLOODING WAS PART OF THE PROBLEM
125 people died in Nelson county. Many not from flooding, but from the intense rain that caused mountains to liquify, sending debris down into roads and homes. Nearly every steep hillside collapsed sending mud flowing downhill.

In the autopsies that occurred following the storm, many were found to have died from blunt force trauma, not from drowning. Some were buried in feet of mud, never to be found, even 50 years later.

Whitehead had graduated high school just a few months earlier. He lost several of his former classmates.

He remembers the search that followed in the days and weeks after the storm. "The whole day and the next day. Search, search, search. It became apparent you weren't going to find anyone easy. You were either OK, or likelihood you were gone."

COULD A CAMILLE HAPPEN AGAIN?
"The answer to could this happen again is yes," suggests Steve Keighton. "Whether it happens exactly over Nelson county, I think that's unlikely, but somewhere along the Blue Ridge it could certainly happen again."

50 years later, meteorologists are still using data from Camille to figure out what would happen if a storm of that magnitude were to hit again somewhere else in southwest Virginia.

Phil Hysell, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Blacksburg, says they often use extreme weather events to help plan for future severe weather.

"We were able to run computer models and found that the Roanoke River would be 15 feet higher than the flood of 1985 if we received Camille's rain over the Roanoke Valley."

More recent flood events have proven the atmosphere is certainly capable of producing extreme rainfall over localized area.

In 1995, several died in flooding over Madison county, Virginia, when a storm complex produced more than a foot of rain in just a few hours.

In 2016, training storms produced historic flooding and loss of life in Greenbrier county, West Virginia, as nearly 10 inches of rain fell. The water ran rapidly down the hillsides, flooding the valleys so fast, few could escape.

WHAT HAS CHANGED?
If another Camille-like storm occurred today, one major difference is advanced technology and the way we learn about warnings.

Now just about everyone carries a cellphone and flash flood warnings come right to your phones, so people in the middle of the night would be able to get that information.

TV stations and the National Weather Service offices are also staffed 24 hours a day during severe weather.

"Even with all the advanced technology, being able to pinpoint the exact location of a natural disaster is very difficult," admits Keighton.

While their may never be the loss of life again like we had with Camille, we have seen several heavy rain events that came close. Knowing your risk, having a plan, and listening for flood alerts is the best way to live through events like this.

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