On August 18, 1969 the second most intense hurricane that has been recorded striking the U.S. came ashore on the Mississippi coast. The only hurricane known to have made landfall with a lower atmospheric pressure than Camille was strong enough to literally sandblast people into non existence. The Labor Day hurricane that resides in 1st place on the list of most intense hurricanes is a source of endless fascination as well as nightmares for me. Camille may not have caused as many fatalities as the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, but anyone who was in the direct path of this compact storm almost definitely experienced as much terror as anyone ever has while the storm battered them. It also managed to kill 153 people within an hour and a half drive of my current location by dropping over 27 inches of rain in 12 hours. This is steep, mountainous terrain that drains into a limited number of creeks and rivers; that much rain that fast is unfathomable. Entire hillsides were liquified and many of those killed were by blunt force trauma. And all that happened after Camille weakened from a category 5 at landfall to a tropical depression crossing Virginia.
The storm began as many hurricanes do, a cluster of storms coming off of the west coast of Africa. This one didn’t ratchet up through the categories as it crossed the Atlantic. It remained a tropical wave all the way into the Carribean. It brushed the coast of Cuba as a small hurricane of average intensity, likely a category 2. It then moved into the Gulf of Mexico and quickly became a strong category 5. It encountered the jet fuel waters of the gulf and a favorable environment for strenghtening. Forecasters expected it to turn more northeastward and impact Florida but the storm held course toward Louisiana and Mississippi. Other than some weakening due to ERC, it remained this way until it ran into coastal Mississippi like a buzzsaw, flattening everything in its path. Wind estimates at landfall are 175 mph sustained at 900 millibars, though we will never know for sure as all measuring devices in position to record wind speed during Camille were destroyed. Gusts over 200 mph were likely with this storm.
Unfortunately, there were many people in the path of this deadly storm that refused to evacuate. Although I will never understand their thought process, these people must have legitimately felt that their best option was to stay put in the face of the killer storm. People that live in coastal areas affected by hurricanes see many storms that veer off at the last second or don’t reach the expected intensity. After enough of these incidents, perhaps it is understandable that complacency would set in. An error in judgement in this regard can, and has, proven fatal for far too many. The storm surge from Camille was one of the primary dangers, and until Katrina was more or less a unique occurence. It is hard to imagine being on the 3rd floor of a structure and have the ocean lapping at your feet. What kind of emotions would one even have when confronted with something like that? Storm surge from Camille at Pass Christian, Mississippi was approximately 25 feet.
If you want to read a first person account of how terrifying a storm of this intensity is, please look up Ben Duckworth. He was one of the survivors from the Richelieu Apartments. That building took a direct hit from the most intense winds and 25 foot storm surge. It was the source of an urban legend of sorts about a Hurricane Camille ”hurricane party” which never actually occurred. It was really a location where a small group of people attempted to ride out this storm in what they believed to be a safe location. Unfortunately, many of that group did not survive. Ben Duckworth’s account has him climbing onto the roof of the three story building during the storm then being swept off and onto a tree, where he rode out the rest of the storm clinging for survival on his own. It is remarkably similar to several stories told by survivors from the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.
If you are not familiar with the impacts this storm brought to Nelson County, VA please take a minute to read about that deadly flood. The topography of that area of the Blue Ridge aligned just perfectly with several factors to create a nightmare turned reality that people still talk about nearly 50 years later. The remnants of Hurricane Camille were being swept along from west to east and managed to cross Virginia at precisely the right time to interact with a stalled cold front and a jet streak in such a way as to completely inundate one small area with biblical amounts of rain. The circulation of the tropical depression brought an endless supply of low level moisture into an area of incredible lift located right next to ridge tops, creating an upslope event. The storms trained endlessly over the same spot all night long on August 19, 1969. Once again, the terror of having weather seemingly attack you out of the dark depths of the night must have been immense. The high death toll includes many people who were buried in the mudslides and whose remains were never found.
As always, with weather events such as these we can rest assured that the question isn’t will this happen again, but when. Hurricane Katrina was similar to Camille in many ways. Sooner or later one that is stronger than both of them will come along. Floods such as the Nelson County floods are an inherent risk in that area of the Appalachians. It’s expected, just as hurricanes are along the gulf coast. Thankfully, our ability to predict and track these things has improved a great deal since 1969. The Saffir-Simpson scale was implemented following Hurrican Camille to give the public a better idea about the intensity of approaching storms. The residents of Nelson county went to bed on August 19, 1969 expecting showers overnight with clearing to follow, not an historic flood. While we can still be surprised by the weather, hopefully it will not be to that extent, and we will have smaller death and injury tolls through better information and preparation.