Our weather connection with Nelson County, Virginia

Published 10:06 am Saturday, August 20, 2022

By Skip Rigney

Pearl River County, Mississippi, and small, mostly rural Nelson County, Virginia, are separated by 800 miles of distance. But this week 53 years ago, they were connected by a historic weather system that changed both counties forever.

On the night of August 17, 1969, the core of Hurricane Camille roared ashore near Bay St. Louis. Its sustained maximum winds of 175 miles per hour didn’t have much time to diminish before they smashed into Pearl River County.

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Although Camille caused tremendous property damage in Pearl River County, and ended the once thriving but ailing business of tung nut farming, no deaths were reported. That was in grim contrast to Mississippi’s three coastal counties where 141 people died, the vast majority due to the waters of Camille’s unprecedented (at least until Hurricane Katrina in 2005) storm surge.

Deprived of the energy of warm ocean waters as it moved north over the fields and forests of Mississippi, Camille weakened, as do all inland moving tropical cyclones. Less than 24 hours after making landfall the center of the system approached Memphis on August 18, and the Weather Bureau issued an advisory stating that, “a small low pressure system is all that remains of Camille.”

On August 19, the jet stream winds in the upper atmosphere pushed Camille’s remnants eastward across Kentucky towards Virginia. What had once been an epic hurricane was now just a run-of-the-mill low pressure system.

But on the night of August 19, as the now-weak circulation of Camille approached central Virginia, it would converge with several other features on the weather map to produce one of the most horrific flash floods in U.S. history.

Camille’s remnant low didn’t have much wind left, but it had brought along massive quantities of water vapor from the Gulf, and its circulation was sucking in even more water vapor from the Atlantic into inland Virginia. The low’s circulation drove the moisture-laden air up the Blue Ridge Mountains. A stalled cold front sagging southward into Virginia and a streak of high velocity winds in the jet stream provided even more lift.

All of that moisture and rising motion meant rain began to fall from the clouds across central Virginia around dusk on August 19th. That night all the ingredients for rain storms were most intensely focused at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains over hilly Nelson County.

Thunderstorms formed, moved off to the east, and were immediately replaced by more thunderstorms. Over the next nine hours, 27 inches of rain fell in parts of Nelson County. One unofficial total of 31 inches was measured. Billions of gallons of water cascaded down the hillsides and into the hollows, exploding normally quiet creeks and rivers from their banks and hurling juggernauts of trees, mud, and rock down the hills.

By the next morning, the remnants of Camille and its rainstorms were moving into the Atlantic, but in Nelson County at least 120 people had lost their lives.

The third week of August 1969 is a week that should serve as a reminder of the power of hurricanes, not only the full-fledged fury of their winds, but also the tremendous floods they can cause long after their winds subside, especially in mountainous terrain. It’s a lesson that is still visible on the scarred hillsides of Nelson County, Virginia.