WINCHESTER — The folks down in Nelson County — where Middletown resident Wilma Jennings grew up in the small town of Wingina (pronounced Win-GIGH-nah) on the north side of the James River in the southeastern part of the county — still refer to what happened on Aug. 19-20, 1969, as “The Flood.”
“It started raining, and it never stopped,” said Jennings, a teacher at Sherando High School in Frederick County. “It went on and on for days. Maybe it wasn’t days, but it sure seemed like it. I never saw sideways rain, but it was sideways coming down.”
For 48 hours, central Virginia was pounded by the remnants of Hurricane Camille — one of only three Category 5 storms ever to make landfall in the United States since record-keeping began. It resulted in one of the worst natural disasters in the commonwealth’s history.
Fifty years ago, Camille hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 17, devastating the region and claiming 143 lives as the storm surge crested at 24 feet, one of the highest ever recorded in that vulnerable part of the country. The storm’s strength diminished as it headed north, posing little threat to Virginia. But the storm made a sharp turn to the east on the evening of Aug. 19, heading over the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where the rain intensified and stalled. Authorities and residents were caught by surprise, with floods and landslides trapping residents as they slept. Twenty-seven feet of rain was dumped on hard-hit Nelson County over an eight-hour period. Some measured the torrential downfall at closer to 36 feet. One farmer measured 31 feet in a feed barrel in the bed of his pickup; it was empty the night before.
What Nelson County experienced was a “perfect rainmaking machine” — a post-tropical vortex pushed by the westerly jet stream into a stationary front, Jeff Halverson reported for The Washington Post in 2013.
When residents of Nelson County heard the evening weather report on Aug. 19, 1969, the overnight forecast was for “showers with clearing in the morning.” What they got was a tropical deluge of biblical proportions. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Hurricane Camille killed 153 people in central Virginia, including 125 in Nelson County. Many bodies were never found.
Nelson County, at 424 square miles, is similar to Frederick County in size, but as of the 2010 census still had but 15,000 residents. In the late ‘60s, the population was less than 13,000. Jennings considered many of those people “family.” Her mother, a teacher’s aide in the public schools, had a wide circle of kith and kin.
“I didn’t know who was family and who was friends; I did know I had lot of aunts,” Jennings said with a chuckle. “I later found out they were friends who Mom called family.”
That description provides indication of the kind of community Camille struck. Mountainous Nelson was pastoral, family-oriented and quiet in going about its way. Earl Hamner, whose writings inspired the long-running television show “The Waltons,” hailed from the Schuyler area in the northeastern part of Nelson.
Jennings tells a funny story of growing up in Nelson County. Her family — she was one of five children — often took Sunday afternoon rides. When they would get to the county seat of Lovingston and its one stoplight, she and her siblings would jump out of the car if the light was red and lay down in the middle of the road, often rolling around as they did.
“Mom knew no one else was coming on a Sunday afternoon,” Jennings said with a ready laugh.
On the night of Aug. 19, 1969, this bucolic demesne would not know what hit it.
When the rain came, Jennings recalled, it “came fast.” She was 10 years old at the time. First was the rain’s unique swath, extremely narrow and perpendicularly oriented to the Blue Ridge Mountains, whose craggy eminences reached beyond 3,000 feet. This resulted in perhaps the key element of the storm, a locked genesis point (often described as the origin of repeated jet streaks) that, over the eight hours of rain, produced repeated outbursts from the low-hanging levels of moisture.
Or, to put it in layman’s terms, the storm was stuck in the mountains and could not get out.
Flash floods, mudslides and debris flows swept away houses — and families — in Nelson County. Afterward, Jennings’ mother would point to a plot of ground and tersely say: “House, family ... gone.” Hardest hit were the river communities and those nestled in the shadow of the mountains, which served as a conduit of riparian terror.
Communities such as Massies Mill, Roseland, Norwood, and, most especially, Davis Creek, reeled and buckled in response to the torrent. One family, the Huffmans, lost 21 members in the flood.
With her husband out working, Jennings’ mom had five kids to whom to provide understanding of the unusual events. Her strategy, says Jennings: “She kept us in the dark; she didn’t want to scare us.”
Fortunately, the location of their home — on a secondary road above Wingina where the Post Office stood on a terrace above the railroad, which ran along the river — yielded a safe haven for five housebound and increasingly restless children.
“We just wanted to go out and play, but we didn’t go anywhere. We had to stay inside. To me, it was kind of like Noah’s Ark. I do know we were totally blessed.”
Miles away in Clifton Forge, the railroad center where the edges of the storm capped off, young Bill Baber also encountered the unnerving and, for a 5-year-old, frightening capacity of “sideways rain.”
Baber’s grandfather — nicknamed “Buck” — was a C&O engineer on the James River Division. The family huddled in the home of Baber’s grandparents, awaiting word of their man down on the river near Lynchburg.
The hours dragged on to the next day when “Buck” finally called; his train had stalled. He also had a harrowing tale to tell of staying in the coal-hopper until the waters along the river receded.
So Baber and family, secure in that knowledge, went home. The “impressions” from that night remain.
“I do just remember impressions,” said Baber, a retired music educator who for 28 years played the organ at Market Street United Methodist Church in Winchester. “Like in that rain, walking in my raincoat with my head down. I couldn’t breathe. It was like walking in a swimming pool.”
“Buck” Baber, too, came out of his ordeal safely, but hardly unscathed. He contracted pneumonia and, over the next few years, suffered “two or three” major heart attacks due, says his grandson, to the stress of that horrible night on the river. He retired from C&O about three years later.
Jennings and her siblings finally made it outside in the wake of the storm, but found their exploratory path frequently blocked. Her mom figured the Post Office, which had flooded despite its raised porch, was “the safest place to go see the water.” On their first try, they didn’t make it; eventually, they would.
Early on, Jennings’ family also discovered they had one way out. The road east toward Scottsville was blocked, washed out. So they went the other way — as it turned out, the only way — toward Va. 56, a major artery in the southern part of the county.
And it was on these excursions that Jennings and her brothers and sisters would hear their mother’s soulful lament too many times: “House, family ... gone.”