Roar of the Heavens: Surviving Hurricane Camille by Stefan Bechtel is a page-turner that will enlighten readers about Hurricane Camille’s horrific impact on Nelson County, Virginia on 19 August 1969 after it devastated the Gulf Coast. As Camille hit the mountains of western Virginia she collided with two other weather systems that squeezed millions of tons of water out of the storm like a sponge. It didn’t just rain; the air held nearly the maximum amount of water theoretically possible, becoming a solid body of descending liquid as lightning flashed sideways. Eight hours and more than two feet of rain later, 124 people in rural Nelson County were dead. Many of them, taken by the devastating floods, would never be found.
Roar of the Heavens tells Camille’s destructive hour-by-hour story through the riveting first-person accounts of survivors and key players, including Dr. Simpson, who would later help to pioneer the universal Saffir-Simpson Scale for hurricanes; Mary Ann Gerlach, the lone survivor of that hurricane party, who was later found clinging to a tree five miles away; and William Whitehead, the very untraditional sheriff of Nelson County, who became a central figure in the storm’s aftermath.
The story also covers how families lived in Nelson County in 1969. “One of the things that really touched me– whole families were swept away,” says Bechtel, mentioning the Raines and the Huffmans, two families who were decimated by the storm. “The reason is that whole families were living together. Nelson County in the ’60s was rural life preserved in amber.”
Bechtel chose a novelistic, day-by-day approach to the storm as he interviewed survivors and put the interviews in the context of what was making news in America that August weekend, including the famous rain-soaked festival at Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York. “All the images of Woodstock are rain,” he says. “They’re iconic.”
He was also interested in the science of a Category 5 storm with winds that push 200 mph. “I wanted to tell the story from the hurricane’s point of view, up 10 miles,” he says. In that effort he was assisted by scientist Jeffrey Halverson, who explains how, after Camille hit the Gulf Coast with brute force but seemed to be dissipating as it moved up the mid-Atlantic, it gained new life when it collided with the moisture-laden mountains of central Virginia and stalled, dumping so much rain that birds drowned in trees and many survivors had to cup their hands over their faces to breathe.
An excellent article about the book, along with aerial photos of Camille’s aftermath in Nelson County are found at The Hook.