Monday, August 1, 2016

How I Survived the Great Flood After Hurricane Camille

Hurricane Camille road marker

The flood of August 1969 was one of the most disastrous in Virginia history.

Making landfall in the Bay Saint Louis area of Mississippi on August 17, 1969, Hurricane Camille had wind speeds of up to 170 miles per hour and the surge was twenty-five feet high. Moving up the mouth of the Mississippi, Camille killed 143 people in the Gulf Coast region before heading North. Two days later, the storm had significantly diminished in strength, becoming a much weaker tropical depression. On August 19, Camille made a sharp turn to the east, leaving Kentucky and heading over the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where during the night the rain intensified dramatically. When she slowed over Virginia, her thunderstorms "trained" (one followed the other) for 12 hours. Nearly 31 inches of rain fell with devastating results. The ensuing flash floods and mudslides killed 153 people. Damage was estimated at $113 million.

Track of Hurricane Camille in August 1968

I was 16 years old in August 1969, when three friends and I went on a trip to southern VA to see how the other half lived. One of my friends had family there who were tobacco farmers. The trip lasted four days and was relatively uneventful until it came time to leave and return to Washington DC.

It was raining heavily and we had heard something about a hurricane, but we didn’t pay much attention. We left around 6PM and drove through the rain. We were going pretty fast because there wasn’t much traffic. After a while we noticed that water was collecting in the dips of the road and as we passed through those dips the water would splash. On one of the deeper dips, the water splashed the engine and it just stopped.

We got out of the car and pushed it across the highway to a gas station that was closed. Then we got back in the car and waited for the engine to dry out — or for someone to come by and help us.

As we waited, the water began rising. First it was an inch at the bottom of the wheels. Then it was at the bottom of the hubcaps. We decided that before the water got to the bottom of the doors we would have to push the car up the hill we had just come down before hitting the puddle.

Sure enough, the time to move came rather quickly. Before we got out of the car I decided to remove my shoes and my shirt, and leave my wallet in the car so those things wouldn’t get wet. We struggled to push the car but we couldn’t move it far because there was so much water, soil and debris coming down that hill.

As we stood there wondering what to do next, we spotted a farm house about half-way up the hill and we could see the farmer loading his wife and a few things into his pickup truck. We ran up the hill and asked him for a ride. He said sure. We asked him if he would wait while we went back to the car to get our things and he said OK, but to hurry up because he wanted to leave immediately.

As we were walking back down the hill, I heard the roaring sound of rushing water. I thought it was coming from a culvert in the middle of the road and I was about to say something when we all saw a giant wave of water, mud and trees crest over a hillside to our left. The amount of water and debris was incredible and we immediately realized that we were in great danger. We turned and ran as fast as we could as the water began filling up the valley and our car was swept away. The water was actually lapping at our feet as we jumped into the bed of the pickup truck and banged on the roof while yelling for the farmer to get going. We watched in horror as the entire valley filled with water as far as the eye could see.

Diagram of a mud slide
A diagram showing what we saw coming down the hill towards us

The farmer drove for a while to get to higher ground. He stopped in an area where there were very large state highway maintenance trucks and told us we should ask the state workers for help. They let us sleep in one of the trucks overnight and then in the morning we were told that we were on our own. It had stopped raining by then but they just left us in the middle of the road with nothing and drove off — no water, no food, and no idea what to do.

We decided to walk back to where we left the car to see if we could find it and recover our belongings. I still didn't have a shirt or shoes, and being out in the hot sun and walking barefoot over all sorts of terrain was quickly taking a toll on me. I spotted a sportcoat by the side of the road that, while soaking wet, was still on a hanger in a dry cleaning bag. So I picked it up and put it on, but there was nothing I could do for my feet.

As we crested the hill before the valley where we lost our car we were greeted with a breathtaking sight. The entire valley was still full of water. We could see the tops of some houses and trees, but otherwise it was now a giant lake. We couldn’t see any way to get around the lake, so we had to go back the way we came.

We walked and walked and walked. As we walked, we had to cross many washed-out sections of road. Sometimes there would be an entire house in the middle of the road. I was walking over broken glass, stones and other sharp objects with my bare feet and it wasn’t long before they were swollen and bleeding.

We didn’t want to start looting but at the same time we didn’t have any food or water, and after a few hours of walking we were in pretty bad shape. Eventually we came across a Coke machine by the side of the road. It was one of the old styles, where after paying, you would open the door and pull a bottle out of one of the slots. We found a piece of metal to use as a crow bar and broke the mechanisms that held the bottles in place. Then we filled up on soda and took a few bottles along with us.

We continued going North till we got to the Appomattox River, just outside of Petersburg, but the bridges were out and there was no way to get across the river. We stupidly thought we could wade across, so we went down to the river bank and held hands as we inched our way across in single file. I was the one furthest out in the water and I didn’t get far before my feet were swept out from under me. I would have been washed away and drowned if the other guys hadn’t pulled me out. After that we decided our only option was to go back the way we came.

We walked for many more hours. By this time my feet were swelled up like footballs and I was leaving a trail of blood behind me as I hobbled along. Eventually we got out of the flood area and were able to hitch a couple of rides from guys in pickup trucks. No one else would pick us up because we were covered with mud. We got back to the town and the farm where we had visited and were able to call family and friends to let them know we were OK. We then bought bus tickets and went on a 15-hour circuitous route to avoid the flooded areas on the way back to Washington DC. We had survived hell and high water. 

Another Blog post by Ken Padgett