It’s been 50 years since Hurricane Camille – the most powerful storm to strike the United States, with 190+-mph winds at landfall – hit the Mississippi coast August 17, 1969. A Category 5 hurricane that swept across Cuba before soaking Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia, Camille arrived in Virginia late the night of Aug. 19, 1969, and parked itself over Nelson County, dumping more than 630 million tons of water across the county’s 471 square miles.
Rain came down not in drops, but in sheets, and with tidal force, residents recalled; The U.S. Weather Bureau confirmed that 31.5 inches of rain fell that night during the six-hour storm.
The sound, recalled Ivanhoe Stevens, who worked for Central Virginia Electrical Cooperative in Lovingston, was unearthly.
“The earth was just trembling,” Stevens told TORN LAND author Jerry Simpson in 1969. “You just couldn’t realize and believe what it did sound like. It was such a roar and a rumble.”
Camille claimed the lives of 151 Virginians in all, 125 of them in Nelson County alone, where 193 homes were completely destroyed. Rivers and streams, laden with debris, destroyed 23 major bridges, 67 smaller ones, and damaged 36 others.
“Virginia,” wrote Simpson, “had never seen anything like it.”
Nurses and floods, of course, go a long way back. Public health nurses – deployed to offer food, medicine, preventative care, like typhoid vaccinations, for those working in fetid and diseased waters – have, through time, used a variety of means to reach people needing help. During the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, public health nurses and others saved victims trapped in the upper stories of their homes from their boats, tended the old, young, sick, and vulnerable, dispensing tons of quinine to keep smallpox and typhoid at bay. During the `27 flood, according to Red Cross archives, one nurse did her rounds in wader boots while another reported that she “wore out her hypodermic needles during the rush of inoculations, and not being able to secure more, kept her eyes alert for the first grindstone that appeared about the water, salvaged it, and sharpened them to continue her work …”
Responding during and after a flood, however, is hardly a perfect science, particularly in light of a changing climate and increasingly deadly storms. The unforgettable lessons imparted by Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, today inform many communities’ emergency response plans. During Katrina, without phones, electricity or back-up systems in place, transferring extremely sick and vulnerable patients was agonizingly slow. Queued ambulances couldn’t maneuver the flooded roads, and other means – helicopters – could rescue only one or two individuals at a time. In-hospital electronically-controlled medicine dispensers remained frustratingly locked during the power outage. Basement generators and their fuel sources flooded and fouled the rising waters. Back-up generators were not standard. Legions of traumatized patients had untended mental health needs. And the sheer volume of help required defied description. As a result of Katrina, nearly 2,000 lives were claimed.
Katrina’s hard lessons, however, have wrought change. During 2012’s Hurricane Sandy (which hit New York and New Jersey and packed 115 mph winds), evacuation procedures – while unsophisticated, exhausting, and involving sled-like stretchers and many flights of stairs due to elevator outages – were orderly, cooperative, and largely without accident. Backup generators located on higher floors ran smoothly, though fuel ultimately became an issue. Coordination and communication had improved.
But Sandy caused basement flooding, which destroyed water pumps and forced nurses to ration water and calm patients. Two obese patients were unable to be evacuated, and likely should’ve been staged to a lower floor. And the decision to evacuate – when, exactly, to call it -- remains tricky.
This #FlashbackFriday brought to you by the Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry. Source material and photos from the book TORN LAND (Paige and Jerry Simpson, J.P. Bell & Co., 1970, Lynchburg, Va); the News Advance; the November 2004 issue of Windows in Time; and the Caroline Benoist Collection, Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry.