A half-century ago, Hurricane Camille ravaged the town where I grew up. Is it a harbinger of things to come?

AuthorLoving, Joy
PositionFlirting with Disaster

Massies Mill, Virginia, my hometown, is a small, rural town located within Nelson County, a beautiful area at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, intersected by the James, Tye, and Rockfish rivers. It was settled in the 1700s by William Massie. Nelson County itself was founded in 1807 and named after Virginias fourth governor, Thomas Nelson.

The area is home to the Monacan Indian Nation, and Nelson County is also Walton country. Earl Hamner, the creator of The Waltons TV series, drew on his experiences growing up during the Depression era in the town of Schuyler, Virginia, about thirty miles from Massies Mill. He was the model for the character John-Boy in the show that ran for nine seasons on CBS television and became an American classic.

In August 1969, seventeen years before I was born, Hurricane Camille slammed Massies Mill, a small community of about 150 people on the Tye River. Between twenty-seven and thirty-one inches of rain fell in just a five-hour period, flooding the town, destroying land, demolishing homes, and taking the lives of at least twenty-three residents. It was a blow from which the town has never recovered.

Today, Massies Mill--the name refers to a giant gristmill that was once in the heart of the community--is too small to be included in Census counts. But it makes up a small share of the town of Roseland, which has a population of around 1,700 people. The scarce jobs in town are in farming, woodwork, and retail (country stores). Some residents drive nearly an hour to work in Charlottesville or Lynchburg.

Growing up in Massies Mill, I heard many stories about Hurricane Camille and the devastation it caused. I began researching its history years ago, in part because I knew that Hurricane Camille could be a precursor of tragedy to come on a planet in which the climate crisis has made severe weather deadlier and more frequent.

My inquiries drew me to the Oakland Museum in Lovingston, Virginia, which is dedicated to Hurricane Camille and other remnants of Nelson County's history. In March 2011, with permission from the museum's organizers, I was given private access to glean as much information about the hurricane as I could.

It was there that I came upon a news clipping mentioning a Black man named Sam Johnson. Johnson died in 2001, but I was able to track down Sam's stepdaughter, Joyce Brown. She told me the story of Sam's experience with Hurricane Camille, as relayed to her by Sam and her mother, Emma. As it turns out, they met during the disaster.

Hurricane Camille began on Thursday, August 14, 1969. It started as a tropical wave near the Cayman Islands that quickly moved toward western Cuba. The hurricane's momentum would fluctuate constantly with winds raging up to 115 miles per hour.

By Sunday, August 17, storm warnings were in effect for Mobile, Alabama, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Biloxi, Mississippi. Despite evidence to the contrary, Virginia weather reports claimed that Hurricane Camille was weakening as it traveled toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, and that there was no need for evacuation.

Local radio stations advised listeners to stay tuned for possible changes in the weather, but assured them that the worst was over. By August 18, it was reported that a low pressure area was all...

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