In the wake of the devastation in Nepal this week, I have found myself reflecting on the good fortune I have to live in Virginia. Not only is it one of the most beautiful states in the nation, overall, we are very, very fortunate when it comes to natural and man-made disasters.
However, we are not without our share of events that caused incredible destruction and even loss of life. 2011 has gone on the record as the worst year for natural disasters in Virginia with record snowstorms, an historic earthquake and effects from both hurricanes and tropical storms. And that was just in 2011. I started looking around and found some other events in Virginia’s history, some natural and some man-made, that caused unspeakable damage. I think it’s important to remember those moments and to be thankful for every day that we have her in our beautiful, and relatively peaceful, home state.
1. Hurricane Camille Flooding in Nelson County, 1969
The night of August 19, 1969, Hurricane Camille hit Virginia with a vengeance, making it one of only three Category 5 storms to make landfall in the U.S. Over the night of August 19 and into the early morning, 28 inches of rain fell in only 8 hours. The storm is considered the worst natural disaster in Virginia’s 400-year history, claiming as many as 150 lives and causing $116 million in damages. The worst of the storm centered in Nelson County in southwest Virginia. Today, a memorial stands in Lovingston to honor those who lost their lives to Hurricane Camille.
2. St. Patrick’s Day Floods, 1936
On March 17, 1936, heavy rains and rapid snow melts caused torrential floods in the Potomac River Basin, causing intense flooding throughout Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and as far north as Maine. It was estimated that as many as 40 inches of snow had fallen the northern Blue Ridge that winter. Warmer temperatures combined with a rain system sent rivers to record high levels. In Virginia, the Potomac rose 9 feet above flood stage, dumping water on Alexandria and Arlington. While most floods are associated with tropical storms and hurricanes, this was the largest non-tropical induced flooding to occur in Virginia history. 4 other rivers flooded, including the James, Rappahannock, Shenandoah and York Rivers.
3. Hurricane Isabel – the costliest storm in Virginia history, 2003
When Hurricane Isabel hit the Outer Banks of North Carolina on September 6, 2003, winds were recorded at a peak of 265 miles per hour. As the storm moved northwest, cutting its way through Central Virginia, the winds began to die down, so no one expected that the worst of the storm’s damage would actually be in Virginia. However, by the time Isabel made her way out of the state, the storm would end up being the costliest storm in Virginia history. 99 counties and cities were affected, an estimated 36 people died and more than 9,000 homes were destroyed or damaged. The total cost of damage reached nearly $2 billion.
4. The Derecho, 2012
Does anyone else remember this one? And was it not the WEIRDEST thing ever? The derecho, a term I wasn’t familiar with until June 2012, was the most destructive and deadliest of its kind to hit the United States. The storm only lasted a matter of hours, but the effects were felt for weeks. In Virginia alone, more than 1 million people lost power and 3 people died. The power outages were the largest non-hurricane related outages in Virginia history.
5. Snowmageddon, 2010
The category 3 nor’easter that hit the East Coast in February 2010 was one of the most destructive to hit our state in recorded history with as many as 37 inches recorded in Warren County alone. The storm brought incredible destruction, including roofs collapsing, power outages, school closures, suspended public transportation and several indirect deaths. It’s hard to complain when we watch the news and see New England’s seemingly ongoing “Snowmageddon”, but few who experienced the winter of 2010 in Virginia will soon forget just how long and cold it was.
6. Record Setting Earthquake, 2011
On August 23, 2011, an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale shook Virginia. The epicenter was in northwest of Richmond, just outside of the town of Mineral. Along with another 5.8 earthquake that hit the New York-Ontario border in 1944, this was the largest earthquake in the United States east of the Rockies since 1897, when yet another 5.8 quake was centered in Giles County. The 2011 quake was felt in more than a dozen states and reached as far north as Canada. Although, thankfully, no deaths and only minor injuries were reported, this quake was felt by more people than any other quake in U.S. history.
7. Scottsville Floods, 1870-1975
Because of its unique location on a bend of the James River, this small town in Central Virginia has been the victim of more than 20 floods from the earliest recordings in 1870. Over this 100-year period, floods almost constantly besieged the town, with the highest recorded levels reaching 34 feet in 1972 due to rains from Hurricane Agnes. Businesses that had only just begun to recover from the 1969 damage of Hurricane Camille struggled to rebuild. The area was declared a natural disaster site and in 1975 a flood levee was built, giving the town reprieve that has allowed them to rebuild. Today, Scottsville is flourishing little town that remembers their past with appreciation for today.
8. Tornado Outbreaks, 2004 and 1993
While “tornado outbreaks” may be more common in other parts of the country, specifically the Midwest, we are not immune to the destruction of these sudden and ferocious storms. The largest outbreak to occur in Virginia was due to Hurricane Ivan on September 17, 2004. A record 38 tornados touched down in Virginia that day. Fortunately, no one was killed, but at least 25 homes and businesses were destroyed with another 2,000 reported severely damaged. In 1993, 23 confirmed tornadoes touched down between Kenbridge in Southside Virginia and Virginia Beach. Four people were killed in Petersburg and hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed. As a side note, the strongest tornado to ever hit Virginia occurred in 1969 in Halifax County near South Boston.
9. September 11 at the Pentagon, 2001
As we know, not all disasters are natural. Unfortunately, people can be almost as destructive and merciless as Mother Nature. At 9:37a.m. on September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington when hijackers associated with al-Qaeda took over the plane. In addition to the 53 passengers and 6 flight crew on board, another 125 people were killed in the Pentagon when the western side of the building collapsed. The fires that ensued took days to extinguish and repairs took years. Considering that 18,000 people worked in the Pentagon at that time, we can count ourselves lucky to have avoided the same level of destruction that occurred in New York. However, no one who lived through that time will forget the aftermath, particularly in the Washington, D.C. area, and our hearts still go out to the families of those lost that day.
10. The Burning of Richmond, 1865
There is no denying that war is an ugly thing. And unfortunately, the casualties of war are rarely contained within the fighting itself. Around April 2, 1865, Union General Ulysses S. Grant captured the Confederate stronghold of Richmond and Petersburg. As Confederate President Davis fled the capital, he gave orders to set fire to bridges, the armory and supply warehouses. Unfortunately, the fire intended to inhibit Union troops soon spread out of control. Before it could be extinguished, nearly a quarter of Richmond had burned and the city had to be evacuated. It became known as the Evacuation Fire and preceded the end of the war by one week.
While we grieve with others around the world who have not only lost loved ones, but homes, livelihoods and parts of their history and culture to natural disasters, it is important to take a step back and remember to be grateful. While we have seen our fair share of disaster here, there is still nowhere I would rather call home. Feel free to share your stories in the comments below. No one understands a disaster like someone who has been through it.