Any given storm
October 29, 2012 38 Comments
We are drawn to it as surely as moths are drawn to light. All of us. And right now, we’re living a demonstration of that. None of us can control a hurricane like Sandy — or any hurricane for that matter. Such unbridled power provides endless fascination in large part because it is out of our control. We can only react, as the university is doing today by closing in an abundance of caution in the face of Hurricane Sandy.
In August 1969, another powerful hurricane arrived in Virginia. Hurricane Camille came ashore in Texas. It ambled up through the Ohio Valley becoming “just” a tropical storm before making a right turn toward Virginia. Colliding with another water-filled system, Camille settled down on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Harrisonburg in Nelson County.
Stefan Bechtel, author of Roar of the Heavens, describes the devastating result:
Almost completely without warning, and within the space of eight hours, one of the heaviest rainfalls ever recorded on earth — billions of tons of rain — cascaded down these mountainsides, turning these lovely crags and streambeds into a terrifying effective drowning machine for all life below. Humans, animals, trees, boulders, houses, cars, barns and everything else were swept away in a fast-moving slurry, a kind of deadly earth-lava that buried everything in its path.
When the storm was over, 150 Virginians were dead. Whole communities had disappeared. “The rains fell so astoundingly hard that it was nearly impossible to breathe, or to hear anything above the deafening roar. So much water crashed from the sky that the entire veneer of a billion-year-old mountain range simply sloughed away.” Bechtel writes.
Unlike today, there was no CNN in 1969 Virginia, no early warning system, no cell phones or Internet. Today, Bechtel points out, news crews would be on the scene instantly. The people of Nelson County, however, were caught unaware, devastated and isolated — for days no one else knew that their world had been upended. Some communities, like Massie’s Mill, were completely cut off. Bridges, roads, including Route 29, were impassable. In one night, Camille changed their lives and the landscape of their world forever.
Camille even altered the way geologists look at change. “One geological study later concluded,” Bechtel writes, “that about two thousand years of erosion had occurred in that single night in Nelson County. And almost forty years later, mountainsides scoured clean and reshaped by that calaclysmic (sic) event are still clearly visible.”
Nelson County blogger, Susan Carter Payne, whose niece Jennifer Payne is a JMU senior, remembers what it was like. In a first person account, she writes:
I was barely six years old and about to start first grade when Hurricane Camille hit. I was fortunate that I did not lose anyone I loved. However, I remember the devastation well. I remember the water, the mud and debris, and the smell. The smell of death. The smell of pungent raw earth. The smell of exposure, collapse, and decay. A stench I will never forget. I remember the recurring nightmare of a spinning house in a downpour of rain. I remember getting a tetanus shot. I remember the immediate fear of the “Army men” and the tanks of strange bleach water they offered me to drink.
Change is often spurred by events out of our control, by forces so powerful that we can only react: Creeping poverty, disease, civil war in foreign nations, political unrest — or a Frankenstorm, as Sandy has been dubbed. As we watch this storm’s progress with the luxury of modern communication, we also have the job to react responsibly in its path — and compassionately and unselfishly in its wake.
Jon McNamara (‘05) with the Virginia Red Cross is in the eye of the storm, so to speak. (See the story about Jon on the JMU website.) We think about friends and family in the storm’s path. My niece in NYC who lives blocks from the evacuation zone. A friend whose most recent Facebook post was simply “evacuating.” The young mother suddenly confined to an evacuation center with three very lively children. Or the parade of utility crews in trucks heading into the red zone to help with the consequences.
The devastating power of a storm is uncontrollable. What is within our control is how we react. Susan Carter Payne also writes: For as little as I actually experienced during this catastrophe, I can only imagine the painful memories of those who endured immeasurable pain and tragic loss. Courageous seems too simple of a word to describe these people. But this is why I don’t look to famous athletes or Hollywood celebrities as my heroes…I need look no farther than the people of Nelson County, Virginia. The heart of Nelson is where true courage resides.
Thus it is with the courageous — those who suffer cataclysmic change and who react the right way to it — those who use power and its mayhem wisely. Our job — as a community that believes in the mandate of positive change — is to clean up, to restore, to heal, to lift up and to befriend — and that effort should be no less powerful than any given storm.