Hurricane Camille – August 17, 1969

Camille was one of only three hurricanes in the history of the United States to make landfall as a category 5. It killed 250 people, injured 8,900 more, and did extensive destruction.

Hurricane Camille was one of the most violent storms of the twentieth century and only one of three in that century to make landfall as a category 5 hurricane. It arrived from western Cuba on August 14 and entered the warm waters of the Gulf, reaching Bay St. Louis on the evening of August 17 with sustained wind speeds of 190 mph and almost totally destroying the Mississippi coast. Before it left mainland United States it had caused the deaths of more than 250 people and injured 8,900, destroyed 6,000 homes and damaged 14,000. The total costs of the destruction it caused were in excess of a billion dollars.

Millions of Gulf residents were made aware of the strength of the storm before nightfall on August 17. It was seen to be one of the strongest hurricanes ever observed in the Gulf of Mexico since 1947. Before it struck about 200,000 residents had fled the coastal areas into sheltered places. As the storm moved across the coast in darkness, homes, motels, apartments, restaurants, and other buildings were swept off their foundations and deposited in mountains of rubble. It was the same for almost everything movable and for much, like trees, that was not as Camille maintained its hurricane strength for ten hours. On the morning after the storm, thousands searched among the wreckage for anything that might have been left.

There was no semblance of normal life in the region around New Orleans for days but, fortunately, the levees around the city were not affected because the storm was centered a few miles away to the east. About 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. Gulfport Hospital had closed down and evacuated all of its patients to hospitals up state.

Adding to the devastated landscape there was a serious vermin problem. There were thousands of dead animals of all kinds, and insects and rodents had quickly overrun the stricken area to feed on these and on the rotting food that quickly accumulates in a hot place like the Gulf Coast. Rattlesnakes, fire ants, and rats bit dozens of victims who were sifting through the rubble. In an attempt to control these ants, low flying planes roared up and down the Mississippi coast, dropping quantities of mirex. At the time of Camille this product was not considered dangerous to humans, but eight years later the federal environment protection agency banned it as a possible carcinogen.

President Nixon sent a thousand troops to help and the state governor declared a state of emergency in order to control crime. 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 twenty-five-foot storm surge had drowned thousands of animals. Heavy equipment was brought in to bury these thousands of animals and wildlife.

The National Hurricane Center took note of Camille’s weather data because of the unusual ferocity of this storm. The lowest barometric pressure recorded on land during the evening of August 17 was 26.85 inches, as recorded at Bay Saint Louis. This was the second lowest barometric pressure ever measured in the United States. Only the 1935 hurricane produced a lower pressure in the middle Keys. That figure was 26.35. The highest tidal surge ever recorded in the United States also belongs to Camille. It was officially recorded as 22.6 feet above mean sea level but high water marks on buildings, still clearly visible long after the storm had passed, showed water heights of twenty-five feet. Camille moved inland and then gradually weakened to a tropical depression over northern Mississippi on August 19.

It had picked up a lot of moisture over the Gulf and this led to torrential rain over the mountains of Virginia. In eight hours, twenty-eight inches of rain fell on Nelson County, an amount that more than tripled the state’s twenty-four-hour record that was set in 1942 and has not been broken since. In other parts of the state, fourteen inches came down during the night. Afterward, Camille turned eastward to emerge into the Atlantic near Virginia Beach on August 20.

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