Hurricane Camille and Madison House at UVA Are Forever Intertwined

August 20, 2019 By Whitelaw Reid, Whitelaw Reid,

Small planes flew over. The helicopters came, lower, and the men in them waved back when he waved. One came as he disassembled the jeep’s ignition. A voice on a bullhorn called out: “Any injured or dead?” He waved and shook his head, and the helicopter swooped suddenly upward to continue on its rounds. The portable radio was strangely useless. Its announcers told the news and sports. (“A major flood in Nelson County took several lives overnight, with many still not accounted for. All major roads and bridges are out. Local authorities have called on the governor to declare a state of emergency. And now here’s sports …”)

This was the scene 50 years ago this week, just a few miles down the road from the University of Virginia.

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In a short story, “Notes from the Flood” – which can be found in UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library – University of Virginia President Emeritus John T. Casteen III, a Ph.D. student and Nelson County resident at the time, recounted the horrific details of Hurricane Camille’s devastation of the rural Virginia county on the night of Aug. 19-20, 1969.

Today, Casteen hesitates to talk publicly about the disaster that took so many lives. The pain is still there.

“The extent of damage in Nelson County is hard to imagine after a half-century,” the former English professor wrote in an email. “Yet in the very worst of times, Nelson’s people and public officials came together to rebuild, and they found allies and backers in government and in churches and in volunteer organizations.”

Black and white image of People stand on the banks of the James River as they watch the water rush by
Onlookers gather to watch the flood waters of the James River near the south end of the Lee Bridge in Richmond. The James River peaked at 28.6 ft in Richmond from Hurricane Camille. (Photo courtesy The Library of Virginia/Flickr Commons)

One such organization was Madison House, the independent, nonprofit volunteer center for UVA students, which had been founded (in its current iteration) shortly before Camille. This year also marks its 50th anniversary.

“My own opinion is that student response to Camille had a great deal to do with subsequent support for Madison House,” Casteen wrote. “It had existed before Camille, and its people had always had their own active lives, but the work following Camille made everyone grow up very quickly.

“Campus Compact came along two decades later. Madison House and its volunteers invented their model on their own.”

It’s a model that has worked well over the last half-century.

“Madison House has been what its creators and student volunteers hoped it would be – a catalyst for action by students to benefit surrounding communities and a constructive force in the lives of people living in communities around us,” Casteen wrote.

Madison House entrance
Madison House, the independent, nonprofit volunteer center for UVA students, was founded shortly before Camille. Students volunteered in the hurricane relief efforts in 1969. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Madison House’s Executive Director Tim Freilich served as a volunteer through the progam when he was a student at UVA.

He said one of his most vivid memories from his years as an undergraduate is of his time as a Madison House volunteer in the pediatrics unit at the UVA Medical Center. On one occasion, Freilich helped relocate the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

“It was amazing to me that I was given the responsibility for what seemed to me to be an impossibly tiny human being,” said Freilich, who graduated in 1993. “To roll the bassinette a quarter-mile from the old hospital to the new hospital … that was an incredible experience.”

Freilich said his time at Madison House shaped who he would become.

“To me, it had a dramatic effect on my career path, in unexpected ways,” said Freilich, who wound up going on to UVA Law School. “It was easily the most important personal and professional experience in my time at UVA.”

UVA students who volunteered in the Hurricane Camille relief efforts in 1969 likely share a similar sentiment.  

Black and white image of a Home turned on its side in Nelson Country by Hurricane Camille
This Nelson County home was turned on its side by floodwaters. (Photo courtesy The Library of Virginia/Flickr Commons)

At the time, Casteen was living in a house on Route 6, west of Woods Mill and north of Davis Creek.

Many people who perished in the flood lived in Davis Creek, but some perished just upstream from Casteen’s home.

“You remember events of this kind and scale in bits, I think – the sight at dawn of the Rockfish River spread beyond its banks and over the ploughing fields and up into the hillsides along it, a churning, rancid, sluggish mass of mud and water and broken trees and crushed cars that ripped away trees and ground up stones as it struggled to get through narrow places farther down; a woman with glazed eyes whose husband had disappeared in the destruction of their house; men in a borrowed fishing boat working their way across the river in hope of finding someone alive on the other side; Mennonite work crews coming each morning from farms beyond Waynesboro and patiently, steadily digging out and rebuilding houses and barns,” Casteen wrote.  “Among these rescue workers and rebuilders, Madison House and UVA students turned up early.  

“The first ones I saw were in the Old Woods Mill filling station and store, helping with head counts and shots for diabetic people who gathered there,” he said. “UVA nurses and physicians and UVA public safety personnel were there early, and as the Madison House volunteers did, they stayed.”

Black and white image of a destroyed bridge from Hurricane Camille
Camille’s floods washed out the Schuyler bridge and hydroelectric dam on the Rockfish River in Nelson County. (Photo courtesy The Library of Virginia/Flickr Commons)

These days, Madison House has 300 student leaders who coordinate 3,000 of their peers.

Freilich said the volunteering experience can be life-changing – on many levels.

“For many of our students, it’s the first time that they are forming adult relationships in the community with people who are neither their teachers nor parents’ friends,” he said. “They are learning firsthand from people who are living and working in Charlottesville. It’s a tremendous experience.”

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Whitelaw Reid

Manager of Strategic Communications University of Virginia Licensing & Ventures Group