Hurricane Camille: She Was No Lady!
Looking back forty years
As pointed out in Hurricane Camille, by Philip D. Hearn, the summer of 1969 suffered from no lack of epic newsworthy events: the first human being landed on the moon on July 20th (I was on the Cape May-Lewes ferry at the time of the landing); the Manson murders occurred in Los Angeles; and the Ted Kennedy incident occurred at Chappaquiddick. And then there was also Woodstock! But it was Hurricane Camille, following all of these, that seemed to be the coup de grace during that fateful summer.
Legend has it that the 23 remaining residents of the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, MS were having a "hurricane party" when Hurricane Camille crashed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast with 190+ mph eye-wall winds at 10:30 p.m. on August 17th, 1969. Whether fact or fiction, it is known that all perished in what is now regarded as one of only two 20th Century hurricanes to hit the U.S. mainland as a category 5 storm (winds greater than 155 mph).* The other was Andrew, which devastated extreme southeast Florida, south of Miami, in August 1992.
Keep reading for more on Hurricane Camille...
There was, of course, far more loss of life from this storm than the Richelieu Apartments residents, as 172 died in Mississippi and, overall, 347 in the U.S. But considering the storm's intensity, far fewer died than might be expected from a storm of this intensity. By comparison, Katrina caused approximately 2000 deaths directly and up to another 2000 indirectly. We were not as fortunate, however, when it came to Camille-caused property damage, which totaled anywhere from 8 to 11 billion (2009) dollars, depending on who you want to believe. Again, Katrina far exceeded this number, with some estimates exceeding $100 billion, much of this resulting from failed levees in the New Orleans area.
Although 1969 hurricane forecasting techniques were certainly not as advanced as those of today, generally, they were still quite good (hurricane hunter planes were in use and satellite photography had already been around for 10 years). Nevertheless, a significant error occurred in predicting final landfall, when, instead of slamming into the Florida panhandle as forecast, the storm veered west by 100 miles and caught the Mississippi coastline by surprise. It would be the same as if a hurricane were predicted to hit Atlantic City, NJ but instead made a sudden left turn, surprising Ocean City, MD with a direct hit. Hopefully, an error of this magnitude would not happen today.
In closing, I pose two final questions which may have occurred to some of you: (1) what are the chances of another Camille-type storm striking the U.S. anytime soon? and (2) do hurricanes provide any benefits?
The answer to (1) above is: fairly low, I would think, considering that less than 5% of all hurricanes are category 5 and only a small fraction of these hit the U.S. mainland with that strength. The answer to (2) above is fairly obvious in one respect: hurricanes, or their remnants, provide a large percentage of the total annual rainfall to the southeastern U.S., greatly aiding agricultural interests (as long as it's not too much). Another benefit--and this might not be so obvious--is that hurricanes help to balance the planet's heat budget by transporting vast amounts of heat from the tropics to the poles. Can you think of other hurricane benefits?
Following are some additional facts and figures about Hurricane Camille:
- The pressure at Mississippi landfall was 909 millibars (26.84 inches of mercury), second lowest pressure at landfall to date (if the 1935 FL Keys Hurricane with 26.35 inches is considered.) Pressure readings in some storms other than at landfall may have been lower.
- The storm surge reached 24.2 feet, traveling 7 miles inland to Waveland and St. Louis, Mississippi. Katrina has now broken that record.
- The storm is said to have pushed the Mississippi River flow upstream by 125 miles to a point north of New Orleans.
- Camille was named after then-hurricane center forecaster John Hope's daughter.
- Ships were reportedly carried and dropped 7 miles inland from the coast.
- The remnants of Camille produced devastating inland flooding in parts of the Mid-Atlantic. Floods killed 130 people in Nelson County, Va. with reports of 27 inches of rain in under six hours. See Rick Schwartz's account on his Middle Atlantic Hurricanes Web site.
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