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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 08/17/2009

Hurricane Camille: She Was No Lady!

By Don Lipman

Looking back forty years

* Hot Start to Week: Full Forecast | Hurricane Tracking Center *
* Tropical Update: Ana Ailing, Bill Blossoming *

The Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, Ms. before and after Hurricane Camille. Images courtesy NOAA.

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...

Satellite image of Camille in the Gulf of Mexico 8/16/09.

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?

Hurricane Camile track, August 14-22, 1969.

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.
*Note: For the purposes of this article, only hurricanes making landfall on the U.S. mainland as a category 5 were considered. Thus, the "infamous" Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 with a central pressure of 26.35 inches, the lowest ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, was omitted. (Some sources suggest that in 1988 Hurricane Gilbert had this distinction; still others view the intensities of these storms somewhat differently.) Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, of course, occurred in the 21st century.

By Don Lipman  | August 17, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Lipman, Tropical Weather  
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Don, I believe your characterization of the forecast track for Camille is misleading (Panhandle rather than Miss. coast).

The record shows that early on Sunday morning (9:AM), Aug 17 - Camille was about 250 miles south of Mobile. At that time NHC extended its hurricane warnings from the Florida Panhandle to all of the MIssissippi coast as far west as New Orleans. Soon after - about 15 hours before landfall on the evening of Aug 17, NHC forecasters warned that the center of Camille would pass close to the mouth of the Mississippi River. At 3PM, when Camille was about 120 miles southeast of New Orleans, the warnings east of Apalachicola, Fl were discontinued.

It's virtually certain had today's technology, observational assets, and computer models been available in 1969 forecasts of Camille's track would have been much better at longer lead times (as were forecasts for Katrina).

Unfortunately, we've got a long way to go before we have the capability to accurately predict the rapid intensity changes in storms such as Camille.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | August 17, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

This was a very interesting post. Camille also caused a lot of flooding in Virginia, including the washout of the Southern Railway Tye River bridge. Much of the linked article is about reconstruction of the bridge, but it also contains some interesting weather information including forecaster quotes from 1916 saying such rains are not likely more than once a century at least.

Other benefits to hurricanes? Probably increased page views for weather sites ;-).

Posted by: spgass1 | August 17, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Mr. T is right. Although I was on a NOAA survey ship off the Pacific coast of Mexico when the storm hit, I was under the impression at the time that the storm was well forecast, especially given the technology available. The archives show that the very first hurricane watch, issued at 8 am local time on Saturday the 16th, was from Biloxi eastward to St. Marks FL, so it was a bit to the east, but the western edge included ground zero for the storm's impact. (Pass Christian is about 20 miles to the west of Biloxi.)

Posted by: CapitalClimate | August 17, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the link, spgass1. The impacts of the storm on parts of Va. were quite intense. I find that aspect is undercovered, but given the rest I guess I can understand why.

Posted by: Ian-CapitalWeatherGang | August 17, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

I well remember the night of August 19,1969.

My home at that time was approx. 15 miles north of the 4000 ft. mts. of northwest Nelson County. My most vivid recall of that night was standing outside in the pouring rain around midnight and gazing to the south at the incessant lightning and listening to the continuous rumbles of distant thunder. I can remember thinking that I had never witnessed lightning or thunder of this magnitude during my 17 years on this earth.

I received only 1.60" of rainfall that night, compared to an estimated 30-40 inches in parts of Nelson. Nelson County easily received 3 times the previous 24 hr. record rainfall for Va. which fell during a hurricane in 1942.

News traveled slowing in 1969. During the following days and weeks the revelation of probably the greatest natural disaster to ever strike Va. reveiled itself. Beyond the death toll, 33 residents were never found and are still missing after 40 years! 8 bodies were never identified.

Interesting reading:

Posted by: AugustaJim | August 17, 2009 3:22 PM | Report abuse

@SteveT and CapitalClimate

It appears you're right about the NHC forecast. However, for whatever reason, there was at least some public perception that the storm was headed for Alabama or the Florida panhandle. Maybe other sources (e.g. TV/radio) were telling a different story:

"Although the warnings for Camille evacuation were judged largely successful by local officials, confusion existed between the public and forecasters. Confusion surrounded the predicted landfall area of Camille until as late as Sunday night, only 4-6 hours prior to landfall. Many people had retired for the night Sunday, convinced that the storm would veer north into the Florida panhandle, or at least into Alabama as predicted (Wilkinson and Ross 1970, p. 24). Most people relied primarily on radio and television, then on communication with relatives as an information source."


Posted by: CapitalWeatherGang | August 17, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Pielke Jr: Now there's someone who would never let perception get in the way of data.

Posted by: CapitalClimate | August 17, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

CWG, as you indicate the problem in Camille - but one that still exists to a considerable extent even today - is one of communication and ability to make and carry out decisions on preparedness, evacuation, etc. Even a perfect forecast of track - or one extremely good as was the case for Katrina - has essentially no value if that information is not conveyed reliably and utilized effectively in saving lives and property. Since no forecast now or ever will be perfect, all forecast dependent decisions must account for the estimable varying levels of uncertainty .

BTW: Those purported to have a hurricane party appeared to believe that Camille would hit near them in Mississippi. Unfortunately for them they misused that information to ends that led to their end.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | August 17, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

In the legal context perception is frequently assumed to be 9 tenths of the law.

More generally, psychologists tell us that one's view of reality is simply what one perceives reality to be. Unfortunately, unlike reality itself, perceptions can be manipulated by others for purposes other than to illuminate the real facts.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | August 17, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Thanks a lot for the stories, AugustaJim.

I don't get cable at home, but enjoyed watching the Weather Channel's Storm Stories last week on vacation in a hotel when they covered Camille hitting the coast.

Posted by: spgass1 | August 17, 2009 6:26 PM | Report abuse

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