Hurricane Camille is a bench mark in the American hurricane experience. Although Camille hit an area that had a relatively small population by today's standards - it still provided a horrific firsthand lesson of what a hurricane of maximum intensity can do to the man-made environment. Hurricane Andrew (1992) destroyed more property, and Hurricane Katrina resulted in many more fatalities - but Hurricane Camille remains the strongest storm to ever enter the United States mainland on record.
From a scientific perspective - Hurricane Camille represents bad luck, more than any meteorological extreme. Several other category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic, and supertyphoons in the Pacific, have been as intense. However, unlike many of these super-storms that remine far out to sea, or weaken before making landfall - Camille struck land when at this rare intensity. The resulting property damage was so complete, that sections of the Mississippi coast seemed to vanish.
Although satellite photos from the 1960's lack the resolution of today's images, this satellite of Hurricane Camille in the central Gulf of Mexico can't hide the terrifying signature of a tropical cyclone near maximum intensity. The very hard core of Camille is evident by the bright white clouds surrounding the immaculate eye. (Photo NOAA).
Camille was detected by satellite on August 14, 1969, as a tropical disturbance moving west in the Caribbean Sea. Early on the 15th, Camille became a strengthening hurricane while located off the western tip of Cuba. Crossing Cuba late on the 15th, Camille emerged in the southern Gulf of Mexico with 100 mph winds. By mid day on the 16th, reports from reconnaissance aircraft indicated that the storm had now slowed, but was intensifying, sustained winds had now reached 115 mph. By early evening, Camille was barely moving, but was intensifying rapidly with winds near 150 mph.
During this time, millions of Gulf coast residents snapped to attention. Camille was now among the strongest hurricanes ever observed in the Gulf of Mexico. Not since 1947, had a storm of this intensity threatened the central Gulf. By late in the afternoon on the 16th, an estimated 200,000 persons fled the central Gulf coast, while 50 civil defense shelters were opened. Near midnight on the 16th, hurricane warnings covered the entire middle Gulf coast. It was now estimated that Camille would strike near the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Track of Hurricane Camille in August 1969.
By the next afternoon (17 August), reconnaissance aircraft reached Hurricane Camille about 2:00 p.m. CDT, 100 miles south of the Mississippi coast. Historic conditions now existed in the tightly knotted vortex of Camille. The aircraft had measured a barometric pressure of 905 mb (26.73). This was one of the lowest barometric pressure readings ever measured by aircraft up to that time. Only two supertyphoons in the Pacific - Ida in 1958 (873 mb/25.90), and Marge in 1951(895 mb/26.20), had a lower barometric pressure been measured (JTWC 1976). Sustained winds had now increased to an incredible 190-mph, with gusts over 220-mph. Camille was now estimated to make landfall along the Mississippi coast around midnight on the 17th.
Apartment building in Pass Christian, Mississippi before and after Camille. Pool is in center. (Photo courtesy Chauncey T. Hinman/Brad Hinman - 1969/2003).
As Camille marched toward the Mississippi coast in darkness, brick by brick, civilization from near Ansley to Biloxi, was erased. Homes, motels, apartments, restaurants, and other buildings were swept off their foundations, and deposited in mountains of rubble together with trees and automobiles. The local effect resembled an atomic bombing. Camille's 200 mph wind gusts and 25 foot storm surge, destroyed 100 years of growth and progress along the Mississippi coast in only three hours. Survivors near the eye reported a deafening roar of wind, that was by itself truly terrifying, often compared to speeding freight train. Although the damage in all of southern Mississippi was appalling, within about 1/2 mile from the ocean, most of the structures seemed to have just vanished. Only footings and slabs remained. Even plumbing systems had been removed. (W.Guice 1970).
METEOROLOGICAL CONDITIONS IN THE UNITED STATES
The National Hurricane Center estimates Camille had sustained winds of 180 - 190-mph with gusts in the 210 - 220 mph range. Due to Camille's extreme intensity at landfall, meteorological conditions (winds, tides, pressure...etc.), were impossible to obtain. A Transworld oil rig platform tower that was abandoned as the hurricane approached, recorded gusts to 172-mph until failure.
The lowest barometric pressure recorded on land in Camille was 909 mb (26.85) at Bay St. Louis. This is the second lowest barometric pressure ever measured in the United States. Only the 1935 Hurricane produced a lower pressure in the middle Keys of 892 Mb (26.35). Several reports of pressure under 915 Mb (27.00), were reported by survivors near the eye.
Hurricane Camille produced the highest hurricane tidal surge ever recorded in the United States. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Mobile District 1970), a still-water, high water mark, of 22.6 feet above mean tide, was measured inside the VFW Clubhouse building in Pass Christian, Mississippi. Additionally, debris drift was found 25 feet above mean sea level in the vicinity of East Beach Blvd. Other locations more than 22 feet above sea level recorded high water marks. This included the Avalon Theater building in Pass Christian, a high water mark inside the building was measured to be 22.2 feet above sea level.
After Camille moved inland, the storm weakened, but not before triggering catastrophic flash flooding and landslides over the mountains of the southeastern United States. Torrential rains poured over the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, with 27 inches measured in one location. The cascading flood waters rushed down the mountain slopes, sweeping away roads, bridges, and buildings. More than 100 were killed in Virginia and Tennessee alone.
Site of several oceanfront hotels (pool on right) reduced to slaps and footings along the Mississippi coast following Hurricane Camille in August 1969. (Photo courtesy Chauncey T. Hinman/Brad Hinman - 1969/2003).
From air photos and ground surveys, the tidal surge of Hurricane Camille seemed without parallel in American history. No Pacific Coast tidal wave or Atlantic Coast storm (hurricane or winter storm) had ever submerged so much land to such a depth. In a truly biblical tale, one survivor told of sitting in his home during Camille, and watching as the ocean water spread through his yard and eventually flooded the first floor of his home. Retreating to the attic, the water was quickly neck deep, forcing him to kick out the small attic window and swim to a large transmission tower at the rear of his property. As he struggled to climb up the tower, he watched in horror, as the roof of his home went under water. He had lived 2 miles from the ocean (Coburn 1977).
The morning after the storm, thousands crawled from beneath the wreckage in southern Mississippi, wandering zombie-like through the blasted landscape. In the first few days after the storm, normal society ceased to function. Immediately 15,000 people were homeless, there was no water, food, or fuel. The storm had wiped out all means of communication, and roads, bridges, airports, and even railways were impassable or destroyed. The Gulfport Hospital closed - and evacuated all 800 patients to hospitals in the center of the State. Adding to the devastated landscape, was a serious and growing vermin control problem.
Immediately after President Nixon sent 1,000 federal troops into the area, Governor John Williams declared martial law. Using federal troops and state police, all roads leading into the area where the eye had crossed the coast were sealed off. Military and local police imposed a curfew. The first problem to overcome was the thousands of dead farm animals, pets, and wildlife. Camille's incredible storm surge had drowned thousands of animals. Heavy equipment was brought in to bury thousands of dead cows, horses and pets. Next, insects and rodents had quickly overrun the stricken area - feeding on dead animal carcasses and rotting food. Rattlesnakes, fire ants, and rats bit dozens of victims as they sifted through the rubble. In an attempt to control fire ants, low flying spray planes roared up and down the Mississippi coast, dropping 100,000 pounds of mirex.
Pass Christian, Mississippi town center after Hurricane Camille in August 1969. Building in center is Pass Christian City Hall (Photo - Fred Hutchings - 1969).
The 25 foot tidal surge during Hurricane Camille produced some strange sights the morning after the storm (Photo courtesy Chauncey T. Hinman/Brad Hinman - 1969/2003).
The state and federal government supplied thousands of bulldozers and dump trucks to cart away the twisted wreckage. Some of the debris was simply burned. What was not burned - was buried. Convoys of dump trucks continued removing debris, day after day for the rest of 1969. The disaster relief effort after Hurricane Camille was the largest in United States history until Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Finding shelter for the army of homeless people proved to be a monumental task. As time passed, more of Camille's homeless found shelter or left the area permanently.
The remains of civilization - near Biloxi, Mississippi (Photo courtesy Photo courtesy Chauncey T. Hinman/Brad Hinman - 1969/2003).
Although there is some question as to the total death toll from Camille - the best estimates are 255 people killed, and 8,900 injured. A number of people (50 - 75) were never found. The total damage from Camille was $4.2 billion ( in 1969 dollars). Several sources consider Hurricane Camille the largest single act of destruction in United States history (until Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Katrina). More than 14,000 housing units were damaged, and 6,000 others were totally destroyed (Coburn 1977).
Hurricane Camille remains the most intense hurricane to ever strike the United States mainland (1900 - 2009).
© Michael A.Grammatico 6/08