'Wake up. Wake up. The world is washing away': Looking back on Hurricane Camille

More than 100 people died in storm that caused record-breaking flooding

BUENA VISTA, Va. – Fifty years ago, the remnants of Hurricane Camille battered Buena Vista and the rest of Rockbridge County.

Aug. 19, 1969, is a day that will live on in many people's hearts and minds.

More than 100 people died as the area grappled with record-breaking flooding.

"It's tragic. It's painful. Some people will be reminded of pain. Some people will be grieving. That's to be expected," said Tom Camden, head of special collections & archives at Washington & Lee University Library.

Camden recalls the night the power of what was once Hurricane Camille ravished Buena Vista and the surrounding area.

He grew up in one of the communities hit hard by the unrelenting force of a 100-year storm. 

Fifty years later, Camden says there are two things that he remembers most about that fateful night. 

"The smell of the salvage. The smell of the earth and the mud. And then the second one is the sound."

Torrential rain fell on their tin roof for hours. Camden compared the sound of the storm to that of a roaring train.

"My siblings and I independently made our way downstairs and camped out on the floor of our mother's bedroom because it was so ... it felt wrong," he said.

After hours of what seemed like never-ending rainfall, Camden and his family awoke to destruction and tragedy.

That's when the reality of the event sunk in, he said. "Being awakened by someone -- and a neighbor banging on the door saying, 'Wake up. Wake up. The world is washing away.'" 

It wasn't just the physical damage that affected Camden and his family that day. Soon after, his mother received troubling news.

"Her cousin, Silas Clark, and his wife and their six children were washed away. We didn't hear about for about a week," he said.

As citizens of Buena Vista and the rest of Rockbridge County were left to deal with the aftermath, people had one thing: community support.

"Individuals depended on one another. Dropped everything they did. Sacrificed their own needs to support others," said Eric Wilson, executive director, Rockbridge Historical Society.

Camden says the cleanup effort was slow, but help from friends and neighbors kept the community moving forward. 

"It's also important to talk about the resilience of the community. How the community comes together when things like this happen," said Camden.

Fifty years later, that same sentiment stands strong.

Although they'll never forget the loss of loved ones following this powerful natural disaster, they'll also never forget the community that was even stronger. 

"We also can say look where we are. Look how far we've come. We've bounced back," said Camden.


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