When Camille came calling: Remembering the devastating 1969 storm
Early on Aug. 18, 1969, after roaring past the mouth of the Mississippi River, Hurricane Camille slammed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast between Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, killing 259 people, reducing buildings to piles of steel and splinters, and inflicting damage totaling $1.42 billion ($9.4 billion in 2017 dollars).
NOW: A Hurricane Camille memorial stands as a solemn reminder of the storm’s destruction on the former site of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi, which was destroyed by Camille and again in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps more importantly, the storm prompted the implementation of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, which offers clear, concise descriptions of approaching storms so people who might be in harm’s way will have a better idea of what to prepare for — and whether they should evacuate.
- Category 5 hurricanes are the fiercest. Camille was one of three such storms to hit the United States in the 20th century; the others were an unnamed 1935 hurricane and Andrew in 1992. Only the 1935 storm was stronger than Camille.
- Some reports put Camille’s top wind speed at 200 mph, but the exact velocity will never be known because the storm destroyed the measuring instruments.
- Perhaps Camille’s most frightening feature was the speed with which it developed. It formed on Aug. 14 and achieved Category 5 status just two days later.
- No Camille-related deaths were reported in Louisiana, although much of Plaquemines Parish sustained flooding and winds strong enough to blow houses apart and upend trailers. There was minimal flooding in the Upper 9th Ward when a levee broke.
- One of the persistent Camille legends involves 23 people who reportedly were killed when Camille obliterated the Richelieu Manor Apartments, where they had been having a hurricane party. It’s a great story — Walter Cronkite invoked it when he stood next to the apartment complex’s concrete slab — but there was no such party.
- The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, a Biloxi structure designed by the New Orleans architect Thomas Sully, was destroyed in the storm. Another, older church on the site, where Jefferson Davis worshipped after the Confederacy’s defeat, survived Camille but fell victim to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
- Odd coincidence: On the weekend when hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi were confronting Camille, hundreds of thousands of music enthusiasts in upstate New York braved rainy weather and muddy terrain to enjoy the Woodstock music festival, an epic event in rock ‘n’ roll history.
- After pummeling the Gulf Coast, Camille continued north, dumping more than 30 inches of rain over the Blue Ridge Mountains and flooding several communities.
While New Orleans was spared a direct hit from Camille, the storm shook the city — and most of the region — to its core. That was partly because so many were intimately familiar with the Alabama and Mississippi Gulf Coast, whose collection of quaint beachfront towns has served for years as a vacation ground for locals. On a deeper lever, though, the storm inflicted psychic scars on a generation of New Orleanians, who, living with the annual threat of hurricane season, were reminded all too clearly of the utter devastation a hurricane can wreak — and of the three keys to life in Hurricane Alley: preparation, information and, when the time comes, evacuation.