Hurricane Camille demonstrated the US Gulf Coast’s vulnerability to hurricanes and their extreme potential for destruction. Nearly five decades after it hit, Camille remains entrenched in modern myth and scientific fact as setting the standard for measuring future hurricanes. Camille was even stronger than the more recent Hurricane Katrina, with record sustained wind speeds of 172 miles per hour and gusts that are believed to have exceeded 200 miles per hour, though the storm destroyed all wind-measuring instruments. When it slammed ashore near Pass Christian on 17 August 1969, Camille brought a deadly barometric pressure of 26.84 inches and a record storm surge of 25 feet. The unofficial death toll stands at 256, 143 on the Gulf Coast and 113 in Virginia floods. Damage was estimated at $1.4 billion (in 1969 dollars).
Camille began on 5 August as a tropical wave about one hundred miles due east of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. After taking four days to cross the Atlantic Ocean, it entered the eastern Caribbean Sea as a disorganized but powerful system, bringing rainstorms and gale-force wind gusts to Jamaica. At that point, a cool upper-level air mass descended south into the Gulf of Mexico, and on 14 August the system featured sustained winds of 65 miles per hour and became Tropical Storm Camille. As forecasters monitored the effects of the cold air mass to the north, Camille’s barometric pressure continued to drop. It became a hurricane on 15 August and began to curve north-northwest toward the Florida Panhandle. The cold air mass began to disintegrate, strengthening Camille by creating a low-pressure zone that the hurricane filled. Wind gusts reached 130 miles per hour. Forecasters extended a hurricane warning to the Alabama and Mississippi coasts on 16 August as Camille turned to the northwest and entered the area of low pressure. On 17 August, the barometric pressure fell to 26.61 inches, and winds near the storm’s center topped 200 miles per hour. Camille was sixty miles south of Gulfport by seven o’clock that evening and made landfall shortly before midnight near Bay St. Louis.
The immediate effects were catastrophic. Camille destroyed Pass Christian. The storm surge killed eleven parishioners gathered in a church that shattered when the hurricane hit. About two dozen people attempted to ride out the storm in the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, but the structure crumbled under the power of the storm surge, and most of the people there drowned. The storm surge also lifted three massive freighters and deposited their battered hulks on the beach in Gulfport. Camille left 114 people dead and 45,000 families homeless in Harrison County alone. The storm then continued north into Tennessee and Kentucky as a tropical depression before turning east, gaining strength, and bringing record rainfall to Virginia. Pres. Richard Nixon declared Mississippi a federal disaster area and allocated $1 million in immediate aid. In December 1969 Congress designated another $180 million in aid for Camille’s victims.
Camille provided valuable lessons in hurricane forecasting. It was the first major hurricane monitored with satellite imagery, and meteorologists made significant technical advancements in the storm’s wake. The Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane strength was created two years later: experts declared that Camille had met the criteria for the highest rating, a Category 5.
Serious mistakes were made in the aftermath of Camille. Historian Ted Steinberg argues that the federal response to Camille was a disaster. The Department of Housing and Urban Development offered trailers to the homeless but required recipients to provide land lots, meaning that the policy excluded most poor families. The homeless received rent-free living for only ninety days. Private loan companies charged as much as 40 percent interest.
Steinberg also claims that a twenty-year lull in severe hurricanes after Camille allowed an expansion in coastal development with few restrictions from insurance companies, which vastly underestimated a severe hurricane’s financial impact, but Ernest Zebrowski and Judith Howard argue that development on the Mississippi Coast stagnated because most residents could not afford to meet the improved building standards. The completion of Interstate 10 contributed to the economic decline by rerouting traffic away from the coast. Beginning in 1990, Mississippi’s coastal economy benefited from the advent of legalized gambling, but the casinos had to be built over the water. The Gulf Coast became a continuous sprawl awaiting the next disaster. It arrived on 29 August 2005 in the form of Hurricane Katrina.
- Phillip D. Hearn, Hurricane Camille: Monster Storm of the Gulf Coast (2004)
- David Longshore, Encyclopedia of Hurricanes, Typhoons, and Cyclones (1998)
- National Geographic website, www.nationalgeographic.com
- Mark Smith, Camille, 1969: Histories of a Hurricane (2011)
- David Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (2000)
- US Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District, Report on Hurricane Camille 14–22 August 1969 (1970)
- Ernest Zebrowski and Judith A. Howard, Category 5: The Story of Camille (2005)