Lessons to be learned from Hurricane Camille

NELSON COUNTY, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- The Nelson County Historical Society hosted a presentation Sunday on the causes and consequences of Hurricane Camille, which happened in August 1969. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.

Dick Whitehead was 18 years old when he saw his community destroyed by Camille. He said his father was the sheriff of Nelson County at the time, and he remembers helping people look for their families in the days after the storm.

"You're walking along checking for people and wondering, well how could they survive,” said Whitehead. “Where could they be? There's nothing there except mud and streams and water running back and forth indiscriminately."

The loss of about 124 people in Nelson County alone did not hit him until he was in a funeral.

"When I go as an 18-year-old to be a pallbearer in a funeral for childhood friends and people I'd just finished high school with, that's not fun,” said Whitehead.

Today, scientists continue to study the storm. A professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Dr. Jeff Halverson, talked at the event about why Hurricane Camille was as devastating as it was.

"It wasn't the hurricane per se that was capable of creating 31 inches of rain,” said Halverson. “It was that cluster of thunderstorms that we have recently learned about stuck against the side of the mountain for eight hours."

Halverson said this can happen again.

"We are in this era of global warming where we think the atmosphere is getting moister,” he said. “Rainstorms are more frequent, they're heavier. They're longer duration. And this event is going to happen again, and these events are going to keep happening. It's a very vulnerable susceptible area."

Halverson said the biggest lesson when looking back at the devastation, is where people should and shouldn’t build their homes.

"You have to be very careful where you build or where you don't build, because you look at the places that got swept away and these were the newer homes in these hollows,” said Halverson. “The older homes tend to be built up on higher ground not down in those steep-sided streams, and those were the homes that survived."

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