Editor’s note: Fifty years ago Saturday, Hurricane Camille, the second-most intense hurricane to make landfall in the United States, slammed the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Here’s a look at that storm.
It was hot in the summer of 1969, in just about every way it could be – politically, culturally and, by the middle of August, it was just plain hot when you walked outside your door.
While discord was brewing in parts of the U.S., what was brewing off the coast of Africa would blossom into an event that would decimate an entire region and lead to a new way to classify one of nature’s most devastating forces.
Hurricane Camille, which began life as an area of disturbed weather that drifted off the African savanna, would trek west across the Atlantic which in early August 1969 was sporting near perfect conditions to create a monster storm. When the hurricane made landfall near midnight on Aug. 17, 1969, it would do so with screaming winds, sheets of rain and a wall of water more than two stories high.
As the weather system that would become Camille moved into the Atlantic on Aug. 5, conditions near the Cape Verde Islands didn’t seem to support the formation of a tropical cyclone. Dry Saharan air was, for a time, sucking the life out of the masses of thunderstorms that came like a train out of Africa.
The system struggled to stay together and tried to become organized, but meteorologists didn’t give it much of a shot at developing into anything anyone should worry about.
But, after four days of struggling the system moved into an area more favorable for development and on Aug. 9, it was classified as a tropical disturbance.
The disturbance headed west for the next five days, over the open waters of the Atlantic. In the early hours of Aug. 14, the system had made its way to just west of the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. The fact the system had held together and had become better organized prompted the National Hurricane Center in Miami to request that a Navy reconnaissance plane investigate the area of low pressure.
The Navy plane flew into the area and found a rapidly deepening system that grew strong enough at the exact time the plane was flying over the system to become a tropical storm.
That afternoon, a Thursday, Camille was moving west-northwest at 13 mph with sustained winds at 60 mph. On its projected path, the storm would hit the western tip of Cuba by early morning on the 15th, skirting Cuba’s Isle of Pines.
By Friday morning, Aug. 15, a little more than 12 hours later, Camille had strengthened into a major hurricane just off the coast of Pinar del Rio, Cuba.
By Friday afternoon, Camille had top winds of 115 mph and the storm’s central pressure had dropped to 29.40 inches.
CAMILLE...WHILE STILL AN IMMATURE YOUNG HURRICANE WITH A VERY SMALL INTENSE CORE IS NEVERTHELESS THE MOST INTENSE HURRICANE SINCE BEULAH IN 1967. MAXIMUM WINDS ARE AT LEAST 115 MPH AND OVER THE WATER AREAS GALE FORCE WINDS EXTEND OUTWARD INTO THE EASTERN FLORIDA STRAIGHT AREA.
By that evening, Camille had hit a glancing blow to the island, and exited off Cuba’s northern coast late in the evening, heading north-northwest into the Gulf of Mexico.
The storm, increasing in strength as it hit the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, steered clear of the Florida peninsula, taking instead a north-northwest route up the middle of the Gulf basin.
By 9 a.m. CDT on Saturday, a hurricane watch was issued for the area between Biloxi, Mississippi, and St. Marks, Florida, a coastal city south of Tallahassee.
Two hours later, hurricane warnings went up for an area from Fort Walton Beach, in the Florida Panhandle, to St. Marks, with forecasters believing the storm would curve toward and eventually into the panhandle over the next 24 hours.
A Navy reconnaissance flight on Saturday afternoon found that while Camille was maintaining its strength, its forward motion had stalled, giving the storm time to build intensity.
In the early hours of Saturday, after Camille moved off the coast of Cuba, the storm’s sustained winds were around 100 mph. By 5 p.m. Saturday, aided by the warm waters and the absence of any other weather system that would interact with it, Camille exploded into a monster storm packing 150 mph winds.
Forecasters with the National Hurricane Center who had been warning that the storm could be a strong one since early Friday were now adding the words “very intense” and “dangerous” to their warnings.
The estimated storm surge – or the wall of water a tropical cyclone pushes onshore prior to landfall – was upgraded from five to 10 feet Saturday morning to 12 feet by Saturday night.
A bulletin issued Saturday at 7 p.m. had Camille on the move again at 12 mph. The storm’s sustained winds were up to 160 mph by then.
When Sunday morning dawned, the NHC issued a bulletin calling Camille an “extremely dangerous storm.” The 5 a.m. CDT advisory put Camille 250 south of Mobile, Alabama. That advisory extended hurricane warnings west to Biloxi, Mississippi, and hurricane watches west to Grand Isle, Louisiana.
The 9 a.m. advisory said forecasters believed the storm was headed to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
By 1 p.m. on Sunday, winds and tides were increasing. The NHC was calling for 15-foot tides as the storm headed toward a landfall on the northern Gulf coast. The winds were estimated to be 160 mph, and the NHC said that “little change in intensity is expected.”
Two hours later, however, the NHC upgraded its estimate of the impending tides along the Mississippi coast – between Gulf Port and Pascagoula – saying they would likely be between 15 and 20 feet high.
At 5 p.m., conditions along the entire northern Gulf Coast were deteriorating rapidly with the onset of strong winds, heavy rains and rising tides.
As the northernmost part of the storm made it to the mouth of the Mississippi River around 7 p.m., Camille’s sustained winds remained at nearly 200 mph and extended some 60 miles from the storm’s eyewall. Wind gusts were believed to be near an astonishing 230 mph.
People 160 miles on either side of the eye of Camille were experiencing sustained gale-force winds of up to 50 mph by Sunday evening.
By 9 p.m., the NHC said the storm was headed north into the Mississippi coast with an expected landfall near Gulfport. The winds were still at 190 mph, the NHC estimated.
By 11 p.m., Camille was moving onshore, pushing a wall of water that was more than two stories tall. As the storm moved inland, the winds were estimated at 175 mph.
While it is now described as a Category 5 storm, Camille was not called that in 1969. The Saffir-Simpson Scale which rates hurricane intensity was not in place then.
Camille had made it onshore around 11:30 p.m. near Waveland, Mississippi, just a few miles from the Mississippi/Louisiana state line.
The storm surge created by Camille would devastate the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast, but hitting no place harder than tiny Pass Christian.
Pass Christian was a coastal town of about 4,000 in 1969. It sits east of Waveland, Mississippi, on the opposite side of Bay St. Louis.
Because of its location, east of the landfalling storm, Pass Christian would see the brunt of Camille. Shortly before midnight, a mound of water 24.6 feet high was pushed onshore around Pass Christian. According to some reports, there were rolling breakers atop the storm surge.
Camille’s storm surge shoved inland by winds that broke devices designed to measure them, smashed buildings in the small town. Some homes and businesses exploded from the falling pressure of the storm.
The waters moved through the town north toward Bayou Portage only to meet water from the rising bayous in that area.
As a second rush of water hit the town, streets began to flood. Some areas filled with 15 feet of water in minutes.
Pass Christian’s Trinity Episcopal Church was a one-room building in the Gothic design style when it was constructed in the late 1840s. Through the years, a rectory, a parish house and an education building were added to the property.
In 1969, the church sat where it sits today, two blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. You can see the waters of the Gulf from the back of the church, just past Henderson Park on the other side of West Beach Boulevard.
Paul Williams was the sexton for the church in August 1969, and as Hurricane Camille began to draw a bead on the Mississippi coast, Williams asked Trinity’s pastor, the Rev. Durrie Hardin, if he could bring his family to the church to ride out the storm.
The church had stood through a devastating storm in 1947, and Williams believed the church would provide safer shelter then would his home.
Hardin gave his permission and told Williams that he and his wife, Helen, had planned to ride out the storm in the church’s rectory.
Williams, his wife, 11 children, and one grandchild came to the church and settled in late afternoon Sunday, just as the winds and rains began to pick up.
Around 10 p.m., as the waters of the Gulf began to seep into the church, the family decided to go up a 12-foot pull-down ladder to get into the church’s attic.
As the family reached the attic and Williams began up the ladder to join them, a wall of water pushed by winds estimated at 150 mph hit the church, cracking the boards that framed the 120-year-old building and pitching Williams into the swirling water and out into the Live Oak cemetery which sits across the street from Trinity.
Williams ended up wedged in a fork in a tree where he would stay for the rest of the night as the storm came ashore.
When the church broke apart, Williams’ family members were swept into the waters along with the debris of the church and tombstones from the cemetery.
Williams lost 13 family members to Camille that night. His son, Malcolm, and a son-in-law were the only others of the family to survive.
Rev. Hardin also survived the storm, but his wife did not. She was sucked out of the building she and Hardin were in and was drowned.
The next morning, as rescue workers made it to what had been the church, they found Williams searching for family members amid coffins that had been plowed up from their plots in Live Oak Cemetery as the storm chewed up the landscape.
Pass Christian Police Chief Jerry Peralta would come upon the scene after daylight. He said in an interview years later that the sight of Williams retrieving his family members had haunted him for years.
"The thing that hurt me most ... was Williams with his family, as I watched him carrying those bodies. He carried them out of the cemetery and laid them on the sidewalk,” Peralta said.
Williams had gone to the church thinking his family would have a better chance against the storm in the safety of the large building as opposed to his family home. After the storm passed and he recovered the bodies of his loved ones, he would find out that his home was one of only a few in the area that had survived relatively intact.
One of the enduring stories to come out of media coverage of Camille’s devastation was one of a “hurricane party” that was supposedly held in an apartment complex across the beach from the Gulf as Camille made landfall.
According to the widely-reported tale, 23 people decided to stay in the Richelieu Manor Apartments in Pass Christian, to drink and party as the monster storm came inland.
As the storm hit and gutted the building, the story goes, only one person there, a woman, survived the night. She was reported to have floated out of a second-story window on a sofa cushion and ended up in the top of an oak tree, wedged there until the following morning.
The story of the partiers at the Richelieu spawned a made-for-TV movie, an episode of the TV show “Quantum Leap,” and has been told and retold for 50 years now.
Twenty-three people did stay in the Richelieu that night, the storm did overtake and flatten the building, but 15 people who had been in the complex, not just one woman, survived the storm.
How the story got started isn’t exactly known, though many people tie the origins of the single-survivor story to Mary Ann Gerlach, a woman who did survive the collapse of the Richelieu.
Gerlach, along with her husband, lived at the Richelieu in 1969, and the couple was there the night Camille made landfall.
According to some reports, it was Gerlach who first told the story about a night of partying at the apartment complex as the storm neared.
Police had come to the Richelieu on Sunday telling the property’s managers, Merwin and Helen Jones, to have the building evacuated. Jones told police what he had told many of his tenants, that the building was safe – it was a designated Civil Defense shelter. Twenty-three of the residents took him at his word and stayed put.
In an interview years after the storm, H.J. "Ben" Duckworth Jr., who had lived at the complex, told a different story about that night.
Duckworth disputed Gerlach’s story of a drunken party, saying most of the people at the apartment building were tired after a day of helping to secure the U-shaped complex in advance of the storm.
"There was no party," Duckworth told author Dan Ellis in his book, “All About Camille.” "We were exhausted from boarding up windows and helping the police move cars. We were too tired to party."
"I can't tell you why that story persists, or why people didn't put two and two together," Duckworth said in the interview. "I guess the hurricane party makes a good story."
In 1989, Gerlach was interviewed for an episode of the PBS series “Nova,” in which she repeated the story that she was the only survivor of the Richelieu and that prior to the building’s collapse a party had been going on.
In a 2001 interview, Duckworth wondered if a traveling salesman who had stopped in at the complex as last-minute preparations for the storm were being carried out may have been the source of the story.
"Let's get some beer and have a hurricane party," the salesman suggested to Duckworth and a few others. Duckworth said he was not interested.
"We were too exhausted, and when he couldn't find any takers, he got in his car and headed toward New Orleans," Duckworth said. "That probably saved his life, but I've wondered if that man isn't the origin of the legend. Maybe someone heard him and thought the party really happened."
Duckworth would remember that as the waters rose, the winds picked up and the pressure started to drop. The walls of the hotel began to buckle.
As the storm surge pushed into the structure, Duckworth and eight others who had gathered in a third-floor room tried to get up through a hole in the ceiling and out onto the roof.
"After reaching the roof, I was pulled underwater, but when I came up I slammed into a tree limb and hung on for dear life,” Duckworth said. “I stayed there, with my nose buried in a groove in the bark. Every time I'd raise my head, the wind would suck the air right out of me. The sound of the wind was terrifying."
Duckworth would stay in the tree for the next five hours until rescuers made their way to a cement slab where the Richelieu had stood.
The site was cleared in the months after the storm, and eventually, a shopping center was built there.
In 2005, another storm made landfall near Waveland – Hurricane Katrina. Katrina’s winds and another 20-plus foot storm surge destroyed the shopping center.
Camille continued to be a killer even days after landfall in Mississippi. As the storm recurved and headed northeast to the Atlantic, it left in its wake deadly flooding up through Tennessee and the Ohio Valley to West Virginia and finally Virginia. More than 100 people were killed in the floods across Camille’s path.
259: The number dead or missing following the storm’s landfall and trek northeast and back out into the Atlantic.
190 mph: The top winds clocked from Camille before instruments that were used to measure wind speeds were destroyed.
125 miles: The number of miles north of New Orleans that Camille pushed the Mississippi River flow upstream.
27 inches: The amount of rain that fell in six hours in Nelson County, Virginia, when Camille’s remnants passed through.
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99 percent: The percentage of people living below a 20-foot elevation along the Mississippi coast who evacuated prior to Camille’s landfall.
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