Any given storm

Roadside sign commemorating Hurricane Camille in Nelson Co., Va.Power.

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.

I strongly recommend Stefan Bechtel’s book, Roar of the Heavens, which John Grisham describes as “a riveting account of what it was like to live through the most intense hurricane ever to strike the U.S. mainland.” It’s a great read.

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

38 Responses to Any given storm

  1. silver price says:

    Throughout its duration, it was a small tropical cyclone, although with a radius of gale force winds spreading 100 miles (160 km) to the north, the storm’s thunderstorm area quickly spread over Cuba. As the storm approached the western coast of Cuba, it began rapid deepening , reaching hurricane status and less than 12 hours later attaining major hurricane status , or winds of 115 mph (185 km/h). Prior to landfall , its eye was tracked by radar from Havana ; it is estimated the hurricane moved ashore between Cape San Antonio and Guane late on August 15 as a major hurricane. Camille was a small hurricane as it crossed western Cuba, and its winds decreased to 105 mph (170 km/h) before it emerged into the Gulf of Mexico.


  2. Joe Owens says:

    You are right about the fascination with such power from nature. i find myself mesmerized to see how man made structures and infrastructure holds up against such storms. We know now that Virginia was spared the worst of the experience even as we watch New York and new Jersey deal with the destruction.


    • grahammb says:

      It is fascinating, and as in other natural disasters like Irene, we can learn from Sandy and use that knowledge to prepare for the next onslaught of nature — which may not be soon but certainly inevitable.


  3. wow, incredible! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!


    • grahammb says:

      Thanks! It’s been a pretty exciting couple of days. I love that JMU’s mission of change and the hundreds of people who carry it out are getting more exposure. I’m a real believer in the power of words to share, inspire, and instigate positive change.


  4. But, I think Beulah was a much stronger hurricane, that did hit the mainland …. She only killed about 700 people ….


  5. I love the story! It is amazing how a ‘little’ storm can change your life.

    Especially if you are not protected ….

    2,000 years of change in 8 hours …. And they say Noah and his storm could not change the face of the earth?

    Interesting. Well written. Now if ONLY someone would write about Beulah ….

    Maybe I need to be that person ….



  6. USAMA FAKHAR says:



  7. Pingback: The Snotty Little Canadian Proggy | THE ROYCROFT REPORT

  8. muddledmom says:

    Great post! I’m a JMU grad myself. Excited to see you guys featured here.


    • grahammb says:

      Thanks and Go Dukes! It’s always great to hear from JMU people. I quickly perused your blog. As a mom, I’m really looking forward to looking at it more closely. Looks very interesting! ________________________________________


  9. MG says:

    Excellent recount! It is hard to imagine going through something like Camille, especially without the things we now take for granted, like broadly reaching “instant” news and early warning systems. I was relieved that D.C. reacted in what I felt was a responsive and responsible way to the impending storm. I believe it saved our area a lot of damage in the end.


  10. debdundas says:

    Interesting about the 1969 storm – had no idea.


  11. Rebecca Cao says:

    Hopefully, Sandy is powerful enough to convince people that climate change is something that needs to be dealt with…


  12. Amazing what one storm can wind up doing to the terrain. Living in California we have earthquakes and within a few seconds the earth can move so fast to devastate whole communities just like what Sandy has done. Thanks for sharing!


  13. rebecca2000 says:

    Wonderful post.


  14. I wonder how much worse the devastation would have been from Sandy without today’s technology. Thank you for reminding us of how grateful we should be. And for reminding us of our great responsibility.


    • grahammb says:

      We are fortunate, and those who sometime disparage technology should think of how many lives were likely saved by this new world of communication. I, for one, am grateful for it.


  15. I find the last paragraph-‘ that effort should be no less powerful than any given storm’-pretty inspiring


    • grahammb says:

      Thanks! I think some of life’s most wonderful people are those who quietly and without fanfare or the need for glory come to others’ aid in times of need. In my job with JMU, I have met MANY people like that.


  16. segmation says:

    Thank for the recommendation of the Roar of the Heavens. I can’t wait to get it. Did Stefan Bechtel write anything else?


  17. Anonymous says:

    Powerfully, profoundly, beautifully reflective. Thanks, MB


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